The Devil You Say

Berkeley theaters give Shaw and Marlowe their due.

November 12, 2008

The devil's been all over the place in East Bay theater for the last several weeks, from Ragged Wing's The History of the Devil to Oakland Opera Theater's L'Histoire du Soldat. Despite its protagonist's protestations, The Devil's Disciple at Aurora Theatre Company doesn't really have much to do with our old pal Lucifer.

David Allen
The Devil's Disciple.

The Devil's Disciple
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by Barbara Oliver 
At the Aurora Theatre through December 7 
510-843-4822 or AuroraTheatre.org 

Doctor Faustus
Written by Christopher Marlowe 
Directed by Jeremy Cole 
At Live Oak Theatre through November 22 
510-649-5999 or AEofBerkeley.org 
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Set in Puritan New England during the Revolutionary War, George Bernard Shaw's 1897 play centers on Richard Dudgeon, a self-styled "devil's disciple." In fact, other than his gleeful rudeness and strategic blasphemy, there's nothing wicked about Dick. He's an intensely moral character who finds simple decency so lacking in the prevailing religiosity that he must define himself in opposition to it, and his professed Satanism is simply the most provocative iconoclasm he could come up with. When he's mistaken for the town minister by Redcoats looking to make an example of a prominent citizen to keep the colonists in line, he opts to keep mum and go to the gallows in the other man's place.

Shaw's first box-office hit (in New York) and only full-length play set in America, Disciple feels like a pleasing trifle compared to his later masterworks. It begins as pure melodrama and gradually develops a wry sense of humor as the situation grows increasingly dire. There are hints of the issues that Shaw would explore in other plays, from pious hypocrisy to the societal powerlessness of women, but he doesn't linger on them. He does, however, take a moment to observe that for all the pluck of the colonists, it's the British's own fault they lost America.

Barbara Oliver directed a great deal of Shaw in her tenure as founding artistic director, and her brisk and intimate two-hour staging in the round does credit to the material, although the pared-down ending is anticlimactic. Anna R. Oliver's bonnets, breeches, and tricorne hats provide a nice taste of the period. John Iacovelli's set evokes two virtually identical homes with simple furnishings and a stately rear wall that seems at odds with its humble surroundings until after intermission, when it falls into place as the town hall.

Gabriel Marin's Dick Dudgeon is fiery and intense but also so boyish that his defiance and ironic tone sometimes comes off as snotty, so it's a good thing that Anthony Nemirovsky is such a petulant man-child for contrast as his useless brother Christy. Stacy Ross gives a nuanced sense of the minister's wife as a nervous, virtuous woman at odds with herself over why her detestation of Dick has her so wound up. Warren David Keith is priceless in his extreme cordiality and withering sarcasm as British General Burgoyne. Trish Mulholland as Dick's mother embodies everything he's rebelling against, a pious and sharp-tongued harpy bursting with resentment.

It's a solid cast all around, with Søren Oliver playing the good-natured minister who finds himself tested, Michael Ray Wisely as a jovial British sergeant and a nitpicking lawyer, Allen McKelvey as an officious major, and Tara Tomicevic as a mousy cousin.

When one thinks of a "devil's disciple," the first to come to mind is usually Faust, whose pact with the devil launched a thousand literary and musical works. Among the best known is Christopher Marlowe's late-16th-century tragedy Doctor Faustus, which Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is performing across town at Live Oak Park. One of the better shows the company has done of late, Jeremy Cole's production is so dynamic and well-designed that a few broad performances scarcely matter. Even the overused device of using a rim shot and penny whistle to help sell some so-so slapstick is redeemed by a funny moment when the actors chasten the musician for forgetting the sound effects.

Balanced out by Stanley Spenger's subdued, melancholy Mephistopheles, Harold Pierce plays the diabolical doctor with a sardonic smirk as if going along with a fraternity prank instead of bartering his immortal soul, which actually helps make plausible the fact that the man of learning does little with his newfound powers besides playing juvenile tricks on the pope and magic tricks for monarchs.

All other characters are played by an omnipresent eight-person chorus in black pajamas that also narrate passages such as the demonic pact and added elements such as a succession of quotations about Helen of Troy from poets over the ages. They animate Faustus's good and bad angels as puppets that wouldn't be out of place in Avenue Q, and dance around with swirling cutout shapes on sticks that unite to form a giant demonic face. In one riotous sequence, they act out each of the seven deadly sins as a pile of bodies backed by appropriate pop songs — "Money," "Vogue," "I'm Too Sexy" — while Lucifer preens in silhouette behind them.

With wild variations in tone and hairpin turns from glee to repentance, it's a tricky play to do well, and Cole and his past make it such devilish fun that its scant hundred minutes fly by.

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