Brevity is not the soul of Saint Joan’s wit. Even at three and a half hours’ running time, however, the George Bernard Shaw classic never flags in Bedlam’s funky, spunky, stripped down version at the Folger Theatre. There are, however, some costs to the company’s insistently low-cost approach.
Magnificent acting, nimble pacing, and innovative staging give director Eric Tucker’s almost fetishistically bare-bones production its momentum. Dria Brown delivers a sweet, searing performance as Joan, the 17-year-old farm girl who, inspired by voices of saints in her head, rallies 15th-century French armies against the English before being celebrated and then punished as a heretic for her efforts. The other three actors impressively assume a couple of featured roles and a variety of minor ones as well.
For the most part, the New York company’s spartan approach in the Folger’s elegant, intimate space accentuates Shaw’s sharp language and discerning characterizations, and the players have some fun incorporating audience members sitting onstage into the nuances of a few scenes. Les Dickert’s shrewd lighting, in the last act, is doubly powerful, with a fading beam isolating Joan in her final helpless hour while allowing for the trio of other actors to rove about creating a restless assemblage of personages piping up from the near darkness of the audience floor and balconies. Tucker makes use of these spaces again in Shaw’s controversial epilogue.
closes June 10, 2018
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But there are tradeoffs. While experiencing the production, I confess—since we’re on the topic of heretical thinking—to sometimes imagining a full cast, grand sets, and handsome costumes around this talented company. Yes, I know: Lock me away in a Vegas backstage, then draw and quarter me in the Shrine of Brecht. But while the quick character changes display the little troupe’s undeniable acting alchemy, they also sometimes distract from the story, from the scale and variety of societal forces Joan finds arrayed around, and eventually against, her.
Tucker’s approach sometimes undercuts itself with an anti-pretentiousness so emphatic that it exudes a slight preciousness. A crew member carries two old cassette recorders mid-stage, for instance, to indicate the sonic environs before the Battle of Orleans. Tucker uses the perfectly fine theater speakers at other points—so why this hip, self-conscious un-techiness? Such moves whisper, “Hey, look at me directing,” and that undermines Tucker’s stated wish to get out of the way of Shaw’s powerful script. A few anachronistic riffs and comic bits also break the spell Bedlam has worked so hard to cast. True, they might in some sense “loosen up” the audience for a moment, but to what purposes exactly? Again, it’s a reminder of directorial process that works against the focus on Shaw’s story that Tucker ostensibly wants.
Still, the acting is aces. Brown draws us in with her vehement self-assuredness as a most unlikely soldier, then by her vulnerability as a simple teenager thrust into the merciless cogs of feudal and church politics. Tucker enthralls as a cynical earl, a decrepit military man, and a creepily charismatic, soft-spoken Inquisitor. Edmund Lewis elicits both our scorn and our sympathy as the pitiful Dauphin whom Joan tries to rally into kingliness, and as an English churchman whose simpleminded nationalism taints his spiritual mission. And Sam Massaro is a steely cleric in a maddening quest to obey his unfixed notions of justice.
“A miracle, my friend, is an event that creates faith,” says Shaw’s Archbishop of Rheims. Shaw wrestled with his own questions of principle and radicalism. His Marxism veered late in life toward a most unbecoming fascism. He knew—for better and for worse—a thing or two about the combustible interplay between the ideological and the political.
Wherever the Final Judgment has sent him, the celestial ledger must surely reflect that Saint Joan—an intense consideration of human courage, folly, and fragility—is a theatrical miracle in itself. Its core questions and dark, ironic esthetic have reverberated since in works as varied as The Crucible, A Man for All Seasons, and Jesus Christ Superstar. And its Bedlam of the spirit is well served by Bedlam’s splendid artists.
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eric Tucker. Starring Dria Brown, Eric Tucker, Edmund Lewis, and Sam Massaro. Costume and sound design by Eric Tucker. Lighting design by Les Dickert. Resident dramaturg: Michele Osherow. New York Casting: Eisenberg/Beans Casting. Production stage manager: Diane Healy. Produced by Bedlam . Presented by the Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.