In the preface to Three Plays for Puritans, George Bernard Shaw credits his inspiration for The Devil’s Disciple to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but audiences will probably note more of Gilbert & Sullivan in the topsy-turvy world of his 1897 comedy. Set in America during the Revolution, Disciple contains a Puritan-raised hero with sympathy for the devil, a mother who practices cruelty as piety, and a mild Presbyterian minister who ends up as a swashbuckler. Tony Walton’s sterling production at the Irish Repertory Theatre pulls the laughs from Shaw's use of romantic melodrama to launch a pinwheel of commentary on women’s rights, pacifism, religion, false sentiment, and patriotism. The first act functions as a prologue. In the cold New Hampshire winter of 1777, the long estranged Dick (Lorenzo Pisoni) has arrived in town at a moment of crisis for the Dudgeon family and the colonial army. Dick’s uncle Peter has been hanged as a rebel, and his father has died suddenly, so the Dudgeon family gathers at his mother’s hearth for the reading of his father's will.
Darcy Pulliam’s stern Mrs. Dudgeon is a Puritan whose religion consists of oppressing others. Her self-righteousness has provoked Dick’s rebellion and his embrace of qualities opposite to hers: sympathy and pity. Dick further shows his disdain for her and her mantle of officious rectitude by embracing the nickname "the Devil’s Disciple."
Yet, Shaw also suggests that society's treatment of women is partly to blame for creating the gorgon. Although Mrs. Dudgeon brought all the money to the family, the law gives her husband the right to leave her only an allowance and bequeath the bulk to Dick, who takes his uncle’s illegitimate daughter Essie (a wonderfully slovenly Cristin Milioti) under his wing. But the British are approaching, and the meat of Shaw’s play begins in Act II, when Dick, visiting the Rev. Anthony Anderson’s home, is left alone with the parson’s wife, Judith. There he is arrested by the redcoats, who mistake him for the minister they intend to hang as an example.
As Dick tries to persuade Judith (Jenny Fellner) to keep silent about the mix-up and let him go to the gallows to save her husband, Shaw wades into popular melodrama with a big wink. The Irishman also throws in some digs at British imperialism in the person of General John Burgoyne. The jaded “Gentlemanly Johnny” (played with dry humor by John Windsor-Cunningham, but perhaps a shade too much ennui) is a great creation, and his exchanges with Dick on patriotism and propriety dominate the second half of the play.
“I think you might have the decency to treat me as a prisoner of war, and shoot me like a man instead of hanging me like a dog,” says Dick scornfully. “Now there, Mr. Anderson,” remarks Burgoyne, “you talk like a civilian…. Have you any idea of the average marksmanship of the army of His Majesty King George the Third?”
Walton’s production is crammed with fine performances. As Anderson, Curzon Dobell conveys the sincerity and decency of a cleric as well as the inner passion of the romantic hero that he unexpectedly becomes. Craig Pattison is amusingly dim as Dick’s brother Christy. Even Richard B. Watson’s Lawyer Hawkins, wearing a billowing Hogarthian wig (by Robert-Charles Vallance) and chocolate frock coat (the excellent period costumes are designed by Walton and Rebecca Lustig), etches a nifty portrait of a plain-speaking counsel unbowed by Mrs. Dudgeon in his brief scene.
Most important, Pisoni invests Dick with a bluff masculinity, vibrant athleticism, and charm. He can be indulgent toward Christy at one moment and exasperated with him at another, yet he is always human and humane. His scenes with Burgoyne have verbal crackle, but watch him closely for the flashes of physical dexterity that this dashing former acrobat sneaks into his portrayal. If you haven't the money to check out the devil in The Seafarer on Broadway, his disciple will do just as well.