Arts Listings

Actors Ensemble Takes on ‘Devil’s Disciple’

By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet
Friday April 21, 2006

The Devil’s Disciple, Bernard Shaw’s comedy set during the Revolutionary War—and now onstage at Live Oak Theatre in an Actors Ensemble production—is a humorous collision between costume drama, comedy of manners and a problem play: Shaw’s peculiar formula. 

It follows out the line of deliberate statements of apostasy by the self-proclaimed “Devil’s Disciple,” one Dick Dudgeon (Josh Lenn), and his seemingly Non-Euclidean parallel actions that never quite intersect with the blackened self-impression which he carefully presents to puritanical Websterbridge, New Hampshire, in 1777. The plot involves his family, the local Presbyterian minister (Jim Colgan) and his pretty young wife (Nancy Bower) and the occupying forces of His Majesty’s Army. Dick’s brother Christy (Christopher Fabbro) rankles against their mother’s (Dory Ehrlich) pious sternness—“least said is soonest mended”—as they await the arrival of minister and attorney (David Cohen) to hear the reading of old Dudgeon’s will. They also learn that his brother was just hanged by the British as a rebel in nearby Springtown.  

Mrs. Dudgeon is deadset against her eldest: “I am Richard’s mother. If I am against him, who has any right to be for him?” and acidly tells the minister he lost influence over her when he married a young thing. Dick high-handedly waltzes in and claims his lion’s-share of family estate. ”Because, sir,” as the lawyer declares, “the courts will sustain the claims of a man, and that the eldest son, against the claims of any woman.” 

But Mrs. Dudgeon isn’t having anything of primogeniture; she stalks out of the house her late husband intended them to live in together as a family, with Prodigal Son Dick providing for them and acting “as a good friend to my old horse, Jim.” 

Only his young cousin Essie (Lily Cantor), “that sinful child” who slept when her father “was just in the grave,” asks to stay with him in the family home. Dick sticks it to the townfolk who have come to hear the reading, telling them with delight to their faces what they only discuss behind each other’s back. 

Actors’ Ensemble, with David Stein directing, essays its way through this welter of tartly hilarious contradiction. And it succeeds at the point many community theater productions of Shaw conk out. 

There’s a somewhat rough start in act one, with diction and dynamics often out of kilter—enlivened by some juice from Cohen and Lenn, though Dick’s swagger gets a bit pose-y and his glibness a bit too contemporary in manner. Act two begins to get in step, and the third act, the most suave of Shavian comedy in the play, hits its stride with the excellent repartee of Kyle Nash as mannered Major Swindon, dismissive of the efficacy of the colonials who have started to surround them, and splendid Tom Reilly as “Gentlemanly Johnny.” 

They insist on all behaving like gentleman throughout kangaroo court and hanging, though Johnny speaks of incompetence and red tape as the real enemies, in London, and remarks to stilted Maj. Swindon, “Your friend the British soldier can stand up to anything—except the British War Office!” 

The final scenes veer between drama and farce: with the rope around his neck, Dick’s confronted with a High Church priest ( Cohen again) he hasn’t asked for, and lashes out at his pious reading of scripture with “Thou shalt not kill”—to which the priest snaps back: “Now what do you want me to do with that?” 

But another substitution takes place: “In the hour of trial, a man finds his true profession.” 

Just as the man of God turned out to be the revolutionary, Dick, in the midst of yet further reversals, discovers his true calling is rather different from the position espoused in his fluent and frequent freethinking rhetoric. 

Dick Dudgeon’s that unique character, the Shavian hero, a figure that perhaps led Bertolt Brecht in his search for a political and epic theater to investigate what Walter Benjamin called “the untragic hero,” a creature of the contradictions of his peculiar predicament in the conditions that bred him. 

Shaw’s comedy is always conditional, yet has the gleam in the eye of the actor who steps out of the scene for an instant, pointing back to it with humor, saying, “Can you believe this?” 



The Actors Ensemble of Berkeley present The Devil's Disciple by George Bernard Shaw at Live Oak Theatre at Live Oak Park on Shattuck Avenue through May 6. For more information, see or call 525-1620.  




The Actors Ensemble of Berkeley present The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw at Live Oak Theatre at Live Oak Park on Shattuck Avenue through May 6. For more information call 525-1620 or see