Review: ‘Saint Joan’ at Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia

Repertory Theatre has all but vanished in this country today. Fortunately, one can still travel to cities like DC and Philadelphia to see a company of actors enact a group of classic works, with a different play performed each night. This system is terrific for the audience, as they can see many plays in just a few days, and for the actors as well, who are can stretch their art beyond typecasting to portray a variety of roles in a single week.

 Leigha Kato and Alan Brinks. Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato and Alan Brinks. Photo by Shawn May.

Quintessence Theatre Group is bringing “rep” to the Philadelphia area with its Devils and Saints productions of Saint Joan, that will alternate with Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, which opens in two weeks. The plays are performed in the Sedgwick Theater,  built in 1928, with an art deco design. Today, half of the theater is gone and the other half has been turned into a black box by Quintessence. One can still see the art deco designs, dilapidated as they are, on the lobby walls and the elaborate ceiling. It’s an exciting if problematic space with good acoustics and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan does spring to life in this production. In spite of the difficulties of a limited budget, the themes, and poetic language of one of the 20th century’s great masters come across.

Saint Joan tells the oft-told true story Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who, hearing voices from God, led the armies of medieval France to victory against the English, who eventually burned her at the stake as a witch. Shaw, a brilliant wit, was less interested in the historical story than in a keen satire on faith, politics, fame, authority, and the human condition.

The acting company of 11 is amazingly well-spoken. Carefully directed by Rebecca Wright to render the dialogue at amazing speed, the nearly 3-hour running time flies by. Long, complicated speeches are rendered clearly and easily followed. There are ample laughs as well as the Shavian quips are skillfully handled, making for a rewarding and intellectually challenging evening. As the long run continues, the actors will surely develop even more nuance and variety in their readings.

Particular standouts are Josh Carpenter who delivers a powerful, funny, and complex Earl of Warwick. He appears in other roles with a totally different voice and physicality. Gregory Isaac brings the needed weight to the English Bishop who masterfully illumines his conflicting feelings about the controversial “Saint of Orleans.” Andrew Betz’s childish Dauphin effectively matures into something resembling a king.

Joan is played by Leigha Kato who brings teen-energy, wit, physicality and a terrific smile to the role. Still to come is the intense faith of the poor farm girl who can actually convince experienced soldiers to accept her leadership. Kato is a youthful Joan as well, contradicting the customary casting of a 50-year-old star. But this teenage Joan is not as effective as she might be. Shaw surrounds his youngster with older, hardened battle veterans and elderly clerics that one must believe are, somehow, entranced with the saint. The Quintessence company consists of mostly young, talented, diverse performers who struggle with the many varied roles in which they are cast. These experienced generals and clerics seem too young and clean cut to appreciate an adolescent heroine.

Saint Joan is usually performed with a company of 25 and any rep needs some maturity of actors to help the audience follow the complicated story with its many soldiers, bishops, peasants, and kings. Much of double/triple casting is confusing in this production. Frequently, I understood what was being said, but puzzled about the identity of the character saying it.

The football staging set designed by Alexander Burns cuts the black box in half, with a thin black platform and audience on two sides. This stage is cleverly raked from one side to the other giving the illusion of more depth than there actually is. Lighting Designer, Brian Sidney Bembridge, does an amazing job keeping the lights out of the audience area and illuminating the characters. Also effective are fluorescent lamps placed in the floor of the platform. The playing area is covered with stage smoke, which also creates wonderful effects, but as the fumes continue for nearly the entire playing time, it frequently becomes annoying. Asthmatic patrons should sit in the back row. As the setting, (with very few props) does not visualize the locations of the various scenes, the storytelling is helped enormously by the sound design of Adriano Shaplin, with unworldly sounds, scene-setting effects, and music.

Leigha Kato (Saint Joan), and Andrew Betz (The Dauphin). Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato (Saint Joan), and Andrew Betz (The Dauphin). Photo by Shawn May.

The setting creates problems for Director Wright, who just doesn’t have room to effectively picturize the relationships. Most of the actors must stand rooted in one spot speaking in the old fashioned “park and bark” style. Storytelling is also challenged in the absence of costumes and properties. It’s difficult to discern if we are seeing the French or the English as the same actors play both courts, and the traditional supernumeraries carrying colored banners are eliminated. Also confounding are the transitions between the play proper and the surreal epilogue, not to mention Joan’s capture by the English soldiers. Bring along a synopsis if you are new to the play.

The purpose of costumes has historically been to assist the audience and the actor in defining character, and to create the classical world of the production whatever the director might choose it to be. Here, the angry French general is dressed is a green floral dress, while the archbishop sports hot disco pink. The clerics wear floor-length nightgowns which is the only assistance provided for following the narrative. Mr. Carpenter’s Warwick amazingly succeeds in spite of his costume, which resembles a 6-year-old’s onesie pajamas. This is Saint Joan played by Peter Pan’s lost boys channeling Godspell. Designer Nikki Delhomme has a fine resumé, and I am certain there is a concept behind these choices. Perhaps other patrons will offer some insight in the comment box at the bottom of this review.

All of these quibbles could be solved with more money. But, a wigmaster, a larger, more mature company, and complex properties would be expensive, and I am grateful for the Saint Joan we have been given, even if the story of the maid who dresses as a man to take up armor and the sword, has no man’s costume, no armor, and no sword.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with an intermission.

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Saint Joan plays from March 16-April 22, 2016, in repertory with Dr. Faustus at the Quintessence Theatre Company in residence at the Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy), in Philadelphia, PA.  For tickets call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.

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