Long before he wrote about her, George Bernard Shaw referred to Saint Joan as one of those “half-witted geniuses, enjoying the worship accorded by all races to certain forms of insanity.” He came to admire Joan as “a perfectly naïve hero upsetting religion, law, and order in all directions, and establishing in their place the unfettered action of Humanity.” He used evidence derived from Joan’s actual trial, in some cases her own words, to create his most successful play. Saint Joan was a crucial factor in Shaw’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
It is a remarkable achievement to stage Saint Joan with a cast of four playing over 25 parts. Folger Theatre’s engagement of George Bernard Shaw’s classic drama is a reworking of Bedlam’s acclaimed production which was honored as a Top Ten Play by Time magazine and was listed in the New York Times’ Best of Theater List.
The immersive treatment of the subject (some audience members are seated on the stage) is part of Bedlam’s intriguing and, for the most part, persuasive strategy of re-imagining classic plays in stripped-down versions focusing on the script itself and the quality of the acting.
Unfortunately, in this production, there is one person missing. That person is George Bernard Shaw himself. I am reminded of an incident in which Shaw witnessed what he considered a wrongheaded interpretation of his early work Arms and the Man. Most of the audience cheered. One person booed. In his after-curtain speech, Shaw exclaimed, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we against so many?”
The refreshing technique Artistic Director Eric Tucker uses in producing great plays deserves our support. But in this instance he picked the wrong playwright. Shaw’s ideas are there. His characters are there. But there is one element missing in action: the poetry.
Dria Brown is a fine actress, and she has lovely moments as Joan when she pleads for her life, and when she expresses her anger at her enemies. But the real test of Joan is whether we can believe in her voices, which she says come directly from God and help her to inspire others. In this aspect of her role, Brown falls short. Her Joan is rebellious, spirited, and appealing. But not a visionary, which is what Joan must be above all.
Each of the actors has a particularly striking performance in one or more of their roles. Director Eric Tucker excels as Warwick, whose worldly distaste for Joan is accentuated by his fear that her leadership will take power away from the nobles and give it to the king.
Edmund Lewis is unusual casting for the Dauphin, who is generally smaller and weaker. His acting is first-rate, however, capturing perfectly the Dauphin’s mixture of pique, whining, and underlying self-awareness. As John de Stogumber, a fierce opponent of Joan’s who has a change of heart after seeing her execution, his work is intensely affecting. Sam Massaro as the Bishop Cauchon has some especially moving scenes later in the evening, as he defends his own position and the Church he loves.
The costumes are often casual, suggesting a pickup basketball game rather than a royal court. This brings a fresh, contemporary feeling, but does take away from the sense that Joan is challenging some very formidable people and institutions. The handling of the language is similar, and although the rapid-fire delivery moves things along, some of the lines are swallowed. The breakneck pace takes away from the ability of the actors to provide honest and truthful interpretations of their roles. Consequently, in the first part especially, there is a fair amount of overacting and unmotivated shouting. Shaw’s language is much like Shakespeare’s, but we miss the subtleties of the rhythm completely.
The informal nature of the proceedings works against the play itself. A soldier in a baseball cap cannot convey much of a sense of danger. Saint Joan is both funny and deeply serious, but it is not necessary to add quite so many modern twists to make it accessible.
The scenes during which Joan pleads for her life, on the other hand, are beautifully done. The lights (lighting is by Les Dickert) are largely dark except for a spotlight on Joan’s chair, which is raised high in the center of the stage. Brown’s desperation is chilling, and the actors are dispersed throughout the audience, creating a gripping sense of immediacy. We feel Joan’s loneliness and despair powerfully in the last days of her extraordinary life.
Joan, although an illiterate country girl, had courage and wit. Her charisma enabled her to accomplish remarkable things. Brown’s Joan, like the production itself, is exceptionally down-to-earth. It is certainly a valid approach, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the play. But I would have liked to see Joan reach for the sky.
Running Time: Three hours and 15 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions.