A small, spartan New Hampshire town during the Revolutionary War—directly in line of the march of British redcoats from Canada, aiming to meet Howe’s army moving north from New York, to cut New England off from the other colonies—is the scene of a father’s amended will being read, where Dick Dudgeon (Gabriel Marin), self-styled Devil’s Disciple (title character in Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play at the Aurora), finds himself master of his ramrod-stiff Puritan mother’s (Trish Mulholland) house, as he is oldest son and she but a woman, meeting with her exit-line curse (better than living with her blessing, Dick will later declare) as she storms out, leaving him with only the illegitimate daughter (Tara Tomicevic) of an uncle just hanged by the British as an example to rebels.
Dick is shunned as naysayer, a role he takes on with zest, though the extent of his evil seems to be the wearing of his convictions, if not his heart, on his sleeve. His smile seems twisted quizzically rather than cunningly; more whimsical than calculated, he allows himself to be arrested for treason in place of the local Calvinist minister (Soren Oliver) when redcoats come into the house where he’s sitting at tea with the minister’s wife.
Here’s where Shaw’s magnificent comic sense sparks a few satirical blazes. The minister’s upright young wife (Stacy Ross as Judith), who fancies herself as hating Dick, finds her passions mysteriously reversed after he walks away, calmly in custody, and her husband, whom she expects to rush to effect his release, instead hurries away into hiding, without the tender (if wry) kiss that Dick, pretending to be the minister, had impishly bestowed on her. Later, this 180-degree turn will rotate another 90, as Judith will resent Dick for not going to the gallows loving her!
(It’s a very early indication of the somehow levelheaded, yet comic, genius of Shaw that captivated Brecht when he was preparing his own political theater of discernment: the very different actions two characters take, faced with the same situation-actions opposite what their roles would seem to dictate.)
What seems scurrying, self-serving cowardice turns out to be a hurried plan of action on behalf of all, accomplished offstage and revealed only at the climax, while Shaw hilariously sends up the conventions of romantic comedy in the shadow of the noose—a fact not lost on the first reviewer of the play, Shaw’s original commercial success and his only play set in America (where it had its premiere in New York). Again, the dramatist—usually styled a follower of Ibsen, but well aware of other trends—helped show the way to 20th century Modernism by taking Oscar Wilde’s dictum of The Mask another step in a new social comedy which wasn’t Wilde’s comedy of manners in a mirror, as well as using his fellow Dubliner’s sense of an actor speaking a bon mot epigrammatically, a little bit out of character and situation, to comment on the proceedings onstage and in the world. Brecht noticed that too.
Adroit with the bon mots is British commander “Gentlemanly” Johnny Burgoyne (“But my friends call me General,” he intones), played with appropriate deadpan by David Warren Keith, knowing he is already defeated by the colonials, but telling his second-in-command that the true enemy of the English soldier is the War Office, reassuring him that “History, sir, will tell lies as usual.”
The play ends with a handshake and an invitation to lunch, after much travail and amid hoopla. Barbara Oliver, Aurora’s founder, has directed one of the better Bernard Shaw productions in otherwise arid years of his works being wrenched around into other comic conventions. Her actor son Soren and costumer daughter Anna join her and a well-cast company and well-chosen production team for a little Election Year Spirit of 1777.
THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE
Presented by the Auorora Theatre at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 7. $40-$42. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org.