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Saint Joan ~ Folger Theatre

Bedlam Theater Company
May 16, 2018 

A dizzying modernized version of George Bernard Shaw’s notable play, Saint Joan, is now at the Folger Theatre presented by the New York-based Bedlam theater company.  Historically, and even contemporarily, it’s relevant to the discussion of church v. state v. the ruling classes.  That’s what Joan, or Jeanne as the French have it, is all about. Whether tis nobler to have the church or nobility or the patriarchy back your lofty ideals, is the question.  Alas, in the end, poor Joan managed to piss them all off.

Robert de Baudricourt (Eric Tucker) tries in vain to put the peasant girl, Joan (Dria Brown) in her rightful place. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In the relentlessly verbose classic, four characters take on twenty-five roles, some switching roles mid-paragraph.  Joan is the only character that stays herself.  It’s clever.  There are tons of funny bits, but after nearly three hours it feels overly long. Besides, knowing her fiery ending as well as her legacy, it seems more than a little overblown to listen to repeated reassessments of both her value (initially they bought into her hearing voices) and her condemnation as a heretic which came after she led the French to victory.

Is it instructive?  Yes.  Is it well-acted?  To a person.  Does it speak to our modern sensibilities?  Somewhat.  In an age of serfdom, where knights were ransommed and the church and aristocracy reigned supreme, landowners had great sway.  One’s family dictated one’s ultimate station in life and thus one’s future opportunities.  Joan broke too many rules, most importantly the one that didn’t allow women to leave their household duties, don armor and go to war.  So as a feminist piece, it is culturally interesting that Shaw thought it important to write of the inequality of the sexes.  As a religious diatribe, the Church feels threatened by Mohammad, calling him the anti-Christ.  They accuse Joan of being a nationalist and call out the Jews as treacherous.  And their justifications for burning her at the stake, are entirely self-serving.  As social commentary, the interest lies in the playwright’s condemnation of the church and the folly of the aristocracy.

The Earl of Warwick (Eric Tucker, left) discusses the fate of Joan of Arc with the Bishop of Beauvais (Sam Massaro), as chaplain John de Stogumber (Edmund Lewis) listens intently in Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

But in our modern world, with a pope who has a social conscience, nobility who has little influence, and governments who rule predominantly by individual vote, would we have a Joan of Arc?  Today we call them cult leaders, known in the 15th century as sorcerers, and they are equally reviled.  Mostly for good reason.

But we come to like this true-hearted teenager who is dogged in her determination to save France from the expansionist policies of England. “There is something about the girl,” as the bishops and the Dauphin acknowledge.

Brother John Lemaitre, the Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) and John de Stomgumber (Edmund Lewis) await the trial of Joan in Saint Joan at Folger Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Bedlam’s Artistic Director Eric Tucker (who also created the costumes and sound design) uses every trick in the book to keep it fresh – sight gags, pratfalls and slow-motion fights.  A dozen or more audience members are invited to sit onstage adding to the immediacy of the response.  I must say, I don’t know how the actors find their way around all the chairs and spout their lines without taking notice of their proximity.  No mean feat!

The Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) leads the accused Joan (Dria Brown) to her seat to stand trial in Bedlam’s Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Be your own critic, especially if you love Shaw.  After all, Bedlam’s staging of Saint Joan was honored by Time magazine as a Top Ten Play and listed in the New York Times’ Best of Theater list.

Lighting by Les Dickert.  Roles played by Dria Brown as Joan; Edmund Lewis as the Dauphin, John de Stogumber and others; Sam Massaro as Cauchon, Poulengey and others; and Eric Tucker as Dunois, Warwick and others.

Through June 10th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit online.

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