In the Moment: ‘Saint Joan’ by Bedlam Theater Company at Folger Theatre

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Bedlam’s take on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan will resonate with many Blue State denizens with its updated, coolness factors and fine acting. Under Eric Tucker’s direction, Bedlam has taken a secular approach to its contemporary retelling of Shaw’s Saint Joan fit for our baseball cap wearing, social media age full of the now ancient expression, “IMHO” whether the H means honest or humble to you.

Eric Tucker and Dria Brown in Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

What was lost in this approach? As directed by Tucker, the Bedlam Saint Joan lost Joan as an “innocent child of God.” God was shoved aside. Joan is a natural leader who comes off as far from innocent. I found no God on the Folger Stage either, even in the rafters, try as I might. This is no fault of Dria Brown’s portrayal of Joan. She is terrific, especially as a potent military leader, not unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V. Yet the production is tone-deaf to God, which may be fine for some but not for me.

Bedlam’s Joan is a charismatic, strategic leader who aims to knock off the hierarchy of her times (Feudalism and the Catholic Church). She hears voices, which lead her to want to help the working men and women of her day so they will support making France Great (Again). Joan also loudly posits the heresy that anyone can speak directly to God. No need for intermediaries such as priests, or Bishops, or even a Pope in the chain of command.

Such revolutionary ideas. Yet this Saint Joan is presented more with sharp intellectual and communicative talents, like a well-modulated, story-telling Ted Talk, than with gripping spirituality from a charismatic preacher.

Then there is this: certain Shaw dialogue sounds absolutely Trumpian. Lines such as “You should always attack,” or “Do not fight the old way” sound like recent Tweets. And this one that sounds like a current high-level political appointee making peace with their master, “Well, I have to find reasons for you, because you do not believe in my voices. But the voices come first; and I find the reasons after: whatever you may choose to believe.”

What did I want from Bedlam’s Saint Joan? I can only imagine what an emotionally inspiring director, such as Tony Kushner, might have done. Or the current Washington National Opera’s production of Voltaire’s Candide (with not dissimilar themes), with its auto-de-fey scene that smacked me across my face to show me some theatrical heat.

Dria Brown, Eric Tucker, and Sam Massaro in Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Bedlam’s Saint Joan is just a too cool intellectual secular production. In these current times, where God and faith and the secular are in a major war for America’s soul, Shaw’s Saint Joan from Bedlam left me cold for too much of its running time. That is until Joan became a person, not a saint on trial for her life. Then Dria Brown, with volcanic heat and soul spewing forth made the production totally hers. She took my breath away. I wanted to rise from my seat and help save her somehow. It was a positively incandescent theatrical moment.

Then came Bedlam’s Saint Joan Epilogue. Humanity gives Joan the opportunity to return to the living. The final responses to Joan’s questions made perfect sense to me. If ever there is a choice between following a saint or a sinner, let me take the sinner. Saints know no earthly bounds, they have little patience for humanity’s foibles and needs. They live lives of perfection and expect the same of humanity. Saints, like an Old Testament prophet, are always correcting something. That grows old and stale.

Yes, the real Joan challenged the religious and political orthodoxy of her times. She served her God as she heard her God’s voices. But what of others who heard their own God’s voices, but of a different God or perhaps of a secular charismatic leader masquerading as a person of faith, or a charlatan of an entrepreneur of the moment. Are any and all God’s voices of equal validity and value? Does the voice of God to one person trump the voices heard by others? Can voices heard by one and skillfully communicated to adulating folk who feel uncared for ripple in unexpected ways, to even topple centuries of democratic rather than feudal order?

In Bedlam’s production of Saint Joan, Joan’s praying to the God only she hears has little to behold as mesmerizing. There was no wonderment or mystery. No talking in tongues. No revelations and fiery chariots in the sky. The medieval world Joan inhabits and is trying to reform into what she wants it to be is certainly not “too wicked for her,” to use Shaw’s own Saint Joan dialogue.

There was just insufficient awe in this particular Saint Joan for me. It was cool for sure, with its edges worn down to a nub.  What do you think? Please tell me after you see Saint Joan at the Folger.

Running Time: Three hours and 15 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions.

Saint Joan plays through June 10, 2018, at the Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.