Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Colonial Days of Our Lives - Shaw's The Devil's Disciple

Fiona Byrne
Fiona Byrne - The Devil's Disciple

Oxford defines melodrama as a "sensational dramatic piece with violent appeals to emotions and a happy ending," and in George Bernard Shaw's capable hands, cleverly directed by Tadeusz Bradecki, The Devil's Disciple is a classic, opening with British soldiers hanging an American rebel to the accompaniment of Handel's ominous, foreboding music, closing with the same portentous music but a much happier outcome. In between, for three acts we witness Jackie Maxwell's skilled troop operate inside Peter Hartwell's histrionic set, a faux (emphasis on faux) rendition of a Websterbridge, New Hampshire 1777 farm house with a front door sounding hollow and tacky, K-Mart walls, so un-woody that they appear see-through. Kevin Lamotte's lighting keeps pace with appropriate murkiness for gloomy themes and luminosity for merrier moments. It's a fine, enjoyable evening of light entertainment.

Shaw's initial stage directions highlight this melodrama: "At the most wretched hour between a black night and a wintry morning in the year 1777, Mrs. Dudgeon is sitting up in the kitchen and general dwelling room of her farm house on the outskirts of the town of Websterbridge... No woman looks her best after sitting up all night; and Mrs. Dudgeon's face, even at its best, is grimly trenched by the channels into which the barren forms and observances of a dead Puritanism can pen a bitter temper and a fierce pride. She is an elderly matron who has worked hard and got nothing by it except dominion and detestation in her sordid home, and an unquestioned reputation for piety and respectability among her neighbors, to whom drink and debauchery are still so much more tempting than religion and rectitude, that they conceive goodness simply as self-denial. This conception is easily extended to others - denial, and finally generalized as covering anything disagreeable. So Mrs. Dudgeon, being exceedingly disagreeable, is held to be exceedingly good. Short of flat felony, she enjoys complete license except for amiable weaknesses of any sort, and is consequently, without knowing it, the most licentious woman in the parish on the strength of never having broken the seventh commandment or missed a Sunday at the Presbyterian Church."

Donna Belleville revels in the role, not drawing "boos" and "hisses" but chuckles from the audience. The hero or anti-hero as Shaw would have it, turning conventions upside down, is Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung), delighted to be thrust into the time period of " in which the passions roused of the breaking off of the American colonies from England, more by their own weight than their own will, boiled up to shooting point, the shooting being idealized to the English mind as suppression of rebellion and maintenance of British dominion, and to the American as defense of liberty, resistance to tyranny, and self-sacrifice on the altar of the Rights of Man."

Buliung seizes and relishes the role of confronting others with their inauthentic lives, including Reverend Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz), a man of peace, thrust into the role of revolutionary hero, complete with two pistols and a fast horse. His pretty wife, Judith (Fiona Byrne) instead of being tied to a pair of train rails by the sinister villain with a black, long, thin moustache, is forced to keep a life-and-death secret that ultimately swings her affection full circle, at first despising Dick Dudgeon, then admiring his strange form of heroism.

Dudgeon is an outcast from his family. He returns their hatred with scorn. After the death of his father, he returns to his childhood home to hear the reading of the will, much to their dismay. Surprisingly, his father secretly changed his will just before he died, leaving the bulk of his estate to Dick. He evicts his nasty mother, but invites his orphaned cousin to stay as long as she wants. Anthony Anderson, the local minister, treats him with courtesy despite his self-proclaimed apostasy, but Dick's "wickedness" appalls Anderson's wife Judith. At the end of the Act, Dick proclaims himself a rebel against the British and scorns his family as cowards when they flee his home. However, Dudgeon ultimately will attempt to sacrifice himself in a Christ-like gesture, despite professed allegiance to Beelzebub.

Jackie Maxwell   Jim Mezon   Kevin Lamotte   Peter Krantz   Peter Millard

In this play, Shaw features two hangings, one successful, one not, a successful rebellion, the reading of a will with an unexpected outcome, astonishing heroism on several counts and military blunders that will forever change the course of history.

In the final act, humour kicks into high gear. General John Burgoyne (Jim Mezon) and Dick wage a comical war of wits wherein Dick's true motives are questioned. Mezon, hilarious in the role of a realistic, jaded warrior, weary of the failures of British bureaucracy, argues that Dick should reconsider his request to be shot by a British firing squad because their marksmanship is so poor that some will miss and others simply make a mess. Thus forewarned, Dick gleefully agrees to a hanging. However, with Byrne waiting faithfully and painfully to witness the execution, like the U.S. Calvary , Hopalong Cassidy , Tarzan , Batman or Roy Rogers , Krantz suddenly arrives to save the day, scoring the winning goal with only seconds remaining on the clock. The fans (audience) walk outside granted absolute catharsis in yet another hum drum day.

Buliung, Byrne and Krantz are superb throughout with Peter Millard as Major Swindon and Donna Belleville maximizing lesser roles. At play's end, Americans rejoice and the just-following orders, red-coated British leave, facing certain defeat. A soldier relates the events to come with the significance of the establishment of the first capital of Upper Canada, indeed, right here in Niagara on the Lake, a nice final touch.

The Devil's Disciple plays in the Festival Theatre from June 14-October 11; ticket sales: 1-800-511-7429.

Tadeusz Bradecki
Tadeusz Bradecki

Shaw's Devil's Disciple

The Devil's Disciple 1959

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