"Saint Joan" will be playing at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway in Manhattan, through April 1.
Under the restrained direction of Eric Tucker, George Bernard Shaw's sprawling 1924 play about the life, death, and canonization of Joan of Arc returns to Manhattan in the Bedlam theater company's minimalist production at the Access Theater. Capturing the saint's tumultuous rise from farm girl to France's greatest weapon against the English occupation (all in a matter of months) in 1429 to her capture and execution by the occupiers and their native allies in 1431, Tucker and the rest of the cast adroitly reveal the humor and pain in Shaw's relatable script while creating moments of hard grace and quiet anguish. Though Shaw tells her story with narrative irony and a knowing wink at modernity, he never casts doubt on the goodness or innate sanctity of Joan herself, one of the few characters in his oeuvre wholly above reproach.
Andrus Nichols gives a ferocious performance in the title role, fearlessly channeling Joan's sexless magnetism, androgynous vulnerability, and quixotic faith in the holy voices in her head to lead her to victory and paradise. She is brilliantly supported by Tucker, Ted Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe, who divide the remaining twenty-three roles amongst themselves. Tucker conducts the ensemble with a sure hand, a charismatic presence whose generous performance never upstages the other actors while keeping many of the choicest roles for himself. Lewis transitions smoothly from the nervous insecurity of Charles VII to the venomous machinations of Chaplain John; one highlight is the moment when he quickly transforms himself from Baudricourt's surprisingly confident steward into the put-upon, defensive dauphin. O'Keefe shines with wisdom as the Archbishop of Rheims and simmers with outraged pride as Bishop Cauchon. Also worth mentioning is the lucid and thoughtful dramaturgical work of Katharine Goodland.
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At well over three hours, the show would benefit from simpler staging and tighter scene changes, and a leaner running time would also help the audience maintain a stronger hold on the occasionally undifferentiated characters. The audience's movement from the black box to the lobby and back, only to shift seats and rearrange themselves inside the theater throughout the final scenes is distracting and unnecessary. While Tucker's attempt to connect the viewer with the performance through different vantage points and spaces is theoretically interesting, it almost feels like he doesn't completely trust in the inherent power of the play itself. This philosophy is correct concerning the epilogue, an inert piece of expository dialogue that serves little dramatic purpose, an example of Shaw's constant inability to put the pen down after the story has been told. Tucker might eventually be able to make this scene work, but the current production would be better served if it was excised. A stronger choice would be to end on the solemn downbeat of Brother Martin's serene faith in Joan's ultimate innocence following Chaplain John's guilt-ridden recantation of his anglophile treachery.
Premiering the same year that Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature and four years after Joan's canonization by the Catholic Church, the play is perhaps the pedagogical playwright's best example of theater's ability to harness history to illuminate contemporary political and social concerns. Written in the decade when women first won the right to vote in England and America, he portrays a woman as one of the most fearless warriors and forthright politicians in a remote time of war and instability. At the height of British colonial power, he criticizes English xenophobia in its absurd manifestation in Chaplain John's insistence on England's cultural and moral superiority to France at the end of the Middle Ages, leading one to consider how many future Saint Joans are still being created around the world. Arguing that this was the moment in Europe when Protestantism and Nationalism first began to take shape, Shaw humanizes the story's protagonists almost to the point of abstraction, leaving us to wrestle with the lessons that Joan's religious, nationalist, and social heresies continue to impart to our world.