Eric Tucker, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, and Ted Lewis in SAINT JOAN.
BOTTOM LINE: George Bernard Shaw’s classic play is revived in a provocative production, that occasionally favors boldness over text.
The Bedlam theatre company is committed to producing small-scale works that challenge the relationships between actors and their audience. Their production of Saint Joan, currently being remounted at the Access Theater after an acclaimed run last year, certainly pushes these boundaries in a provocative way; although it is a bit aimless and lacks consideration for the text at points. Among the actors clad in contemporary dress, roams a young woman with a tape recorder in hand. Nature sounds omit from her retro device as she presses play at various moments. This choice is abandoned after the first act but more curiosities follow, and by the play’s conclusion, the use of such conceits wears on the story and the vision being created. However, while some directorial choices appear nonsensical, most are intelligent and the result in an affecting production stripped completely of artifice.
George Bernard Shaw’s lengthy masterpiece about a woman who ruptures the male controlled Catholic society around her is re-lived by four actors: Andrus Nichols plays the famed martyr Joan of Arc, while three other men take on the daunting task of performing the remaining male roles. “1429” is painted on the floor of the stage and an overturned chair with the word “France” splashed on the seat lets the audience know when and where this story takes place. The farm girl Joan, begs for an audience with the Dauphin because she hears the voices of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and the archangel Michael who tell Joan she is to lead the French army into battle against the English. After Joan leads the French to victory, the people become suspect of her, and she is imprisoned and tried, only to be condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. Joan is grossly outnumbered by the men in the play, and Shaw’s work not only recounts the tragic story of her martyrdom, but draws attention to a phallocentric society that is quailed by the presence of a powerful woman.
Eric Tucker, who shows much finesse and skill through his naked direction of Women of Will (currently playing at the Gym at Judson), takes a similar bare-bones approach in staging another classic. Props and scenery are almost non-existent. His touch is most evident through the shifting of the playing space in each act. The first act begins in a traditional theatre arrangement, with the audience collectively facing the stage. However, each subsequent act (there are 3) occurs in a different configuration -- including one scene performed in the lobby during intermission. The transitions are done unapologetically with actors instructing, “turn your chairs around please, we just have one scene left.” What is commendable about this approach is that Tucker is able to pay reverence to Shaw’s luscious text with few theatrical frills. The trade off is that the baldness of this device is undeniably clumsy and jarring. While the production is sometimes effective in re-imagining actor-audience relationships, other times their admirable efforts are misguided and throw the audience out of the world of the play -- which, for a three and a half hour production can be problematic.
As this imaginative interpretation builds, so does the ferocity of Shaw’s text, and it reminds we spectators of how terrific this play really is. Shaw demands complete attention to digest his wordy tale, and in the capable hands of Andrus Nichols, Shaw’s poetry and passion is wholly realized, as she depicts Joan’s formidable heart and religious fervor while maintaining the scrappy country-girl within. Her supporting company, Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker (doubling as an actor as well) all deliver fleshed out performances in their primary roles, but when they tread into their smaller parts, they often sacrifice nuance for a simple physical or vocal affectation. However, let us acknowledge that these three men are playing the remaining two-dozen roles (no small task!) and for the most part, the performances are acted with clarity and depth.
“Bedlam” seems an appropriate name for the company that has staged this engaging Saint Joan. There is a madness in the enthralling production, and it captures the horror of a time when a pure-hearted maid could be burned alive. Yet madness is also unspecific, ungrounded, and lacking reason. While there is magic in this delirium, it is not always founded in dramaturgy, which inhibits the text rather than enhances it. While Bedlam breaks barriers through their staging, it is sometimes boldness for the sake of being bold. The beleaguered Saint Joan is accused of a slew of crimes, but this need not be one of them.
(Saint Joan is playing at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, through April 6, 2013. Performances run in rotating repertory with Bedlam’s Hamlet Wednesdays through Mondays at 8PM and also on Saturdays at 2PM. Check theatrebedlam.org for performance schedules and ticket purchases. Tickets are $30, and $15 for students.)