Bedlam’s St. Joan
Joan of Arc—you’ve heard of her, no? But if you don’t know George Bernard Shaw’s treatment of her tale, you may have some surprises in store. Regardless, you may find your breath taken away, one way or another, by Bedlam’s production of the play, which is running “on Broadway”—it’s at the 78-seat Access Theater, on lower Broadway (380 Broadway at White Street)—through May 13.
In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great silent film of 1928, the action is compressed to a single day of trial, confession, recantation, and burning. Joan’s examiners are mostly old, warty men with nasty smiles, whose physical flaws suggest something corrupt in their souls; Joan is visibly a pure and suffering innocent. Shaw’s version of the story is vastly different, relatively expansive in time, place, and character: half a dozen locations, the final two years of Joan’s life plus a jump cut to 25 years after her death in 1431(one of those surprises), and some two dozen roles. He gives rational positions to everyone Joan encounters. If there’s a fanatic in the play, it’s Joan, who speaks with absolute conviction of matters inaccessible to anyone else—her voices. By contrast, it’s easy enough to see why the others (all of whom are men) doubt her, while finding it expedient, to make use of her for their own advantage, or to do away with her. It’s Joan’s personal qualities, such as charm, common sense, nimbleness of mind, and fervent dedication that incline us to favor her in this play. True, we also believe her to have been on the right side of things, and Shaw supports us in that, introducing to his text two transformative issues under their modern names, Protestantism and nationalism, and proposing that Joan served to advance them. Simply put, everyone is right in this play, but Joan is more right. She serves the future as well as herself; she plays a historical role as well as a personal one. Shaw usually favored those who “think different.” But not everyone does, a lesson confirmed by his epilogue.
Watching Bedlam’s production, it’s possible to think about Joan and her roles, not because it adopts a leisurely pace (it’s moreoften hectic), but because of the style of the presentation. Many of the acting choices are obvious, giving us a broad grasp of a character’s emotional response while leaving us free to think about the text—the words get to speak for themselves. This has been labeled Brechtian by more than one reviewer. You could just as well call it indicative rather than psychologically specific. Likewise, the costumes are broadly suggestive but make no attempt at exact rightness for character or period.
The first scene is launched at a rapid-fire clip; immediately we have to work to keep up. It may help if you’ve recently read the play, but no matter if you haven’t: absolutely every word is spoken clearly. The tempo and the rhythms vary later, but not much is lingered over. The seating varies too, taking us to the lobby for the pivotal Scene Three and then placing us in different positions in the auditorium (including places on the stage floor for about two-thirds of the audience) in Scene Four.
What’s most remarkable, though, is that three men take on all the male roles. To help us keep them straight, Eric Tucker, the director as well as one of those three players, has marked all the men with stance, gesture, costume, and often accent; Bluebeard keeps fingering his beard, the archbishop tends to hold one hand to his chest. Ted Lewis is given, as the chaplain, what becomes me the most piercing moment in the show, breaking down after he witnesses the burning; true, getting to reach an emotional extreme gives him an advantage, but he is fully worthy of it. Tom O’Keefe imparts rhetorical force to the speeches of many of the religious figures.Tucker seems a little Will Ferrell–like as Baudricourt in the opening scene (not a bad thing for a self-important man) and later gives the requisite knowingness to Dunois, the battle-tested commander. And as Joan, Andrus Nichols strikes us first as surprisingly sturdy-looking while sounding notes of girlish enthusiasm. She grows in stature as the play progresses and riveted my attention in the trial scene. There may be something fearless in this performer, who has already followed in the footsteps of Sarah Bernhardt in having played the title role of Hamlet.
Bedlam’s production presents Shaw’s play without a single word cut yet runs only a little over three hours. For comparison, London’s National Theatre brought in its conventionally staged 2007 production at almost exactly the same time, including battle sequences. But there, the epilogue was truncated, and perhaps more as well.
Shaw, as befalls Shakespeare even more often, is sometimes “honored” with less-than-complete productions of his greatest plays, for mere reasons of time. Odd, since we don’t balk at long evenings in the opera house; perhaps the higher the price, the more the audience expects to be asked to endure. Yet for me—not the youngest of sprites anymore—there is no question of endurance in this production. Bedlam’s Saint Joan is vital, intimate, intense, and invigorating. I’d rather see it again than attend for the first time any number of bigger and better-funded productions uptown.
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