The Irish Rep is doing its patriotic duty with a first rate production of the only play George Bernard Shaw set in America. It is pure Victorian melodrama but it is also quite funny, prescient, and topical. Even more importantly, it is Shaw’s warning about how Puritanical values bring misery.
The self-described "upstart son of a downstart," Shaw has also been labeled (as he has himself once said of Oscar Wilde) "the world’s most thorough playwright." To be sure, the "upstart" delighted himself by toying with every social, political, moral, and ethical rebellion from here to Methuselah and back. In his most rebellious mood with "The Devil’s Disciple," he cleverly probes into the ceremoniously veiled presumptions about Godliness and deviltry.
Is it less than Godliness when the irreverent and incorrigible (according to the conventional community standards of Websterbridge, N.J., 1777) Dick Dudgeon, the black sheep of the family, not only takes an orphan under his wing but also takes the place of the purposefully dedicated Parson Anderson at the foot of the gallows? And what are we to make of the parson’s quick decision to sell his Bibles in order to buy pistols so he, with the help of a neighboring band of patriots, can surround Burgoyne’s army and effect Dick’s release?
"The Devil’s Disciple" is full of tantalizing questions and startling discoveries about people who may indeed be more or less than the labels society has affixed to them. This delectably spicy and winningly short melodrama has been appointed to a comely company of excellent actors whose delight it is to make every minute invigorating and fun.
Act 1 is dominated by the charismatic Lorenzo Pisoni. He displays considerable charm as Richard, a smuggler who lives with Gypsies and is branded as "wicked, dissolute, godless." With the Act 2 arrival of the endearing John Windsor-Cunningham’s formidably disposed "Gentleman Johnny," Burgoyne, the company goodnaturedly and with comedic aplomb thrusts itself into the philosophically endowed havoc. Cunningham drolly delivers Burgoyne’s best line, when he proclaims the solemnity of the occasion, "Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like. It is the only way a man can become famous without ability," and gets the play’s heartiest laugh.
But Shaw remains relevant. When Parson Anderson asks Burgoyne: "Have you realized that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?" it is a chilling reminder of how America has ironically assumed a role similar to the one the British once had on foreign soil. When Burgoyne takes umbrage with Dick’s defiance of the taxes levied by the British on the Americans, it is Dick’s response that gets its due from the audience: "It’s not the money, General, but being swindled by a pig-headed lunatic like King George."
Directed in a playful manner by Tony Walton, the unsentimental wit expressed in Shaw’s slight but stingingly irreverent comedy remains a remarkably buoyant and relevant exposure of the puritanical. Making a delectably conflicted spectacle of herself as the parson’s given-to-fainting wife, who can’t get that "blasphemous" rogue Dick out of her mind, Jenny Fellner is a delight. Pisoni and Fellner give their insinuatingly intimate scenes just the right touch of don’t-touch-me-but-I’m-yours-if-you-want-me.
As the Clark Kent into super "man of action" parson, Carzon Dobell fills the bill splendidly. There is plenty of humor to be found in Craig Pattison’s goofy portrayal of Dick’s brother, the intellectually challenged Christy Dudgeon, and in the humorless piety of the Widow Dudgeon, as portrayed with sanctimonious rigidity by Darcy Pulliam. Orphan Essie’s insecurity is sweetly captured by Cristin Milioti. Robert Sedgwick is splendid as Uncle Titus Dudgeon, and as the incompetent and insipid Major Swindon.
Despite the modest scenery dictated by the small performance space, Tony Walton has created four settings to evoke the Dudgeon dwelling, the minister’s home, British headquarters, and the gallows yard. Walton is also to be commended for having 10 actors portray 14 characters with concerted brio. The original New York production in 1897 boasted 33 featured players among the 100 who trod the stage, including soldiers and a military band. Though this time for musical accompaniment we have to content ourselves with Dick whistling a brief refrain of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," more than one patron was heard singing that tune as they exited the theater.
Interesting to note: The familiar pre-Revolutionary song was originally sung by the British to mock the tattered and undisciplined Americans. A "doodle," was a simpleton and a "macaroni," was an American who thought it the height of fashion to put a feather in his hat. You could say that the Irish Rep has put another feather in its cap.
Top Of PageReview: ‘Cyrano’
Act quickly. You have only this week left to see one of the most famous and beloved noses of them all, and that includes the ones belonging to Pinocchio and Durante. The most extravagantly sculptured facial appendage belongs, of course, to Cyrano de Bergerac. The size dimensions, and above all, importance of this famous poet-warrior’s nose is paramount in Edmond Rostand’s rarely performed, somewhat epic 19th century romantic play. Size certainly does matter in one of the great lyrical love stories of all time. Under the direction of David Leveaux, the classic play retains it splace in dramatic literature as a poignant ode to unrequited love and as a stirring tale of heroic valor.
For more than 100 years, the title character has been portrayed by actors who can make the most of the title character’s declamatory bravado and grandiose posturing. A great nose has, indeed, been affixed to Kevin Kline, who is currently filling the role with more than enough panache to satisfy our expectations. We easily side with Cyrano, as he rebukes pride, prejudice, and hypocrisy in 1640 Paris. Kline’s triumph is that he reaches our hearts with his swashbuckling fervor and eloquently expressed ardor.
Although at times I felt Kline to be in a race of words-to-the-minute, his pacing seems to be part of the general pulse of his performance. Anthony Burgess’s ear-opening adaptation-translation seems to perfectly suit this Cyrano’s ageless excesses. The tragic pact between the articulate but homely Cyrano and the dumb but comely Christian to woo and win the fair Roxane, has more than its fair share of comedy and pathos.
Daniel Sunjata, as Christian, possesses all the attributes of a virile, well meaning clod, and Jennifer Garner, despite the contemporary lilt of her voice, is attractive and plucky as Roxane. Garner, a film star currently making her Broadway debut, seems completely at ease on stage and makes it easy for us to see how she could inspire love letters that come to her from the insipid and dull Christian via the ardor of an impassioned but naive Cyrano. Less memorable than they might be in their roles but certainly not detrimental to the overall excitement generated by this well-populated and handsome production are Max Baker as the pastry cook, Ragueneau, and Chris Sarandon as the oily de Guiche.
Of the play’s many scenes, each enhanced by the beauty of designer Tom Pye’s settings, the well-staged battlefield at the siege of Arras stands out for its bombast. It isn’t often that one can say that there isn’t a dull moment in the play’s almost three hours for reasons easily explained by Cyrano’s last words, "my panache," as he dies in Roxane’s arms.