"The Devil's Disciple" is a play in which the great George Bernard Shaw latched onto the lowly form of melodrama and had his way with it.
This sounds like a can't-miss combination: The tried-and-true devices of melodrama peppered with Shavian wit and wisdom. Something for everyone.
But it's easy to go wrong with melodrama. If you overdo it, it quickly becomes ludicrous.
There's no danger of that in Theatre Hopkins' current production, directed by Suzanne Pratt. You realize the production is on firm ground as soon as Mark E. Campion makes his commanding entrance. Campion plays the title character -- the prodigal son of a God-fearing New Hampshire family during the Revolutionary War. He is anything but ludicrous.
Instead, he is deadly serious. The character dubs himself the devil's disciple because that is the most honest, non-hypocritical position available in this self-righteously Puritanical town. And Campion has the right swagger, self-assurance and -- pardon the expression -- devil-may-care attitude to make the stance credible.
According to the deliberately contrived plot, Campion's character, Dick Dudgeon, allows himself to be mistakenly arrested by the Redcoats in place of the town's pious minister. The plot mirrors Shaw's theme -- that a man's true nature is often the opposite of what he claims it to be.
In this case, dastardly Dick is revealed to be heroic, and the mild-mannered minister turns out to be a man of action, not averse to bearing firearms when the situation warrants it. Scott Knox plays the minister, and although his 11th-hour, save-the-day appearance strains the credibility of his conversion the ranks of the rebels, he does just fine in the character's earlier, mild-mannered moments.
As the minister's wife -- surely one of the greatest romantic ninnies Shaw ever cast as a heroine -- Cherie Weinert has to work to restrain the character's squealing ninny-ness, but this purportedly devout woman does appear to have learned something by the end, and that's the point.
One of the most amusing characters is based on a historical figure who caught Shaw's fancy, General Burgoyne. Though he plays a relatively minor role, he has some of the best lines, and Roland Bull makes jolly good work of this wisecracking gentlemanly British officer, a military man capable of expounding on the ridiculousness of war at the same time he is fighting one.
When "The Devil's Disciple" premiered, many critics hailed its originality. Shaw shunned this praise, pointing out that he had used every hackneyed melodramatic trick in the book. It is, of course, in keeping with the play's theme of opposites to find fault with the faithful. But it is honest praise to say that, despite an occasionally less polished performance, there is nothing false about Theatre Hopkins' production. To the contrary, in this VTC election year, much of the characters' posturing rings disturbingly true.
"The Devil's Disciple" continues at Theatre Hopkins weekends through March 15. Call (410) 516-7159.