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Saint Joan

"I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God." —Joan

"They come from your imagination." —Robert
"Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us." —Joan
saint joan
May 30, 2018, marks 587 years since Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy at the age of 19, but being 600 years old hasn't loosened her grip on the theater world. Last spring, the Public Theater debuted a rock musical by David Byrne about her short, tumultuous life (reviewed here). This year, Manhattan Theater Club takes a turn, mounting a striking new production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Shaw draws from the records of Joan's trial to dramatize her meteoric rise and brutal fall. While the tragic subject is unexpected for a playwright better known for satire, the result has Shaw's fingerprints all over it, with his trademark wit and penchant for social critique.

In his hands, this story is not one of battle or death, but rather a meditation of sorts on conviction and faith. A crusader against organized religion, Shaw could easily have gone the route of simply condemning the church's cruelty, but he doesn't. Rather, he creates a work without villains. It is a nuanced, thoughtful piece about individuals acting not out of ill intent but, instead, under the motivation of strong systems of personal belief.

This makes for a different experience than Byrne's Into the Fire, where Joan's story exploded with the energy of a rock concert; anyone who saw that show need not fear redundancy here. Shaw's play is more cerebral, depicting lengthy debates and indulging the thought experiment of allowing each character to possess a justified, reasoned perspective, even if one comes into direct conflict with another.

Which brings us to MTC's production, directed by Sullivan with his usual discipline and featuring a impressive cast led by Condola Rashad as Joan. Saint Joan was written around the time of her canonization by the Catholic Church, and this production marks a different canonization of sorts: that of Rashad, a three-time Tony nominee in the Featured Actress category, as an anchor performer. It's a role she settles into comfortably.

This Joan is a bundle of complex, often contradictory, emotions and impulses. She possesses a self-assurance that is tinged with insecurity. Her ability to lead soldiers and amass such power that the Church views her as a real threat requires clear worldliness, yet she betrays an underlying naïveté. Her valorous actions may seem hubristic or manipulative when viewed from a different angle.

In short, Rashad convincingly portrays Joan as human. In an epilogue where she glimpses her future sainthood, her gut reaction is amusement. Joan is not elevated to the level of a faultless hero, nor is she built into the kind of antihero we're particularly obsessed with in the present moment. Despite her connections to the divine, she remains firmly rooted in the flawed mortal realm.

While Joan is certainly the play's central character, she is hardly its only one; there are over twenty other named roles, played by a sprawling ensemble.

Among the other major players is Walter Bobbie, making his return to the stage after over twenty years spent directing, as the Bishop of Beauvais, Chachon. Other major church officials are the Archbishop of Rheims (John Glover), and the Inquisitor (Patrick Page). They notably avoid easy conclusions about Joan's case, often resisting their colleagues and even their own impulses.

These performances are measured where it counts and save moments of escalation for where they have the potential for maximum impact. Page, despite only appearing in one scene, leaves a particularly strong impression with a thoughtfully delivered monologue on the weight of the Inquisitor's task.

On the more comic end of the spectrum, Adam Chanler-Berat plays the Dauphin, Charles VII, as a moody outsider, using body language to model his character's melancholy. His lack of enthusiasm for the throne, for example, becomes clear as he slouches in it. Jack Davenport's Earl of Warwick, meanwhile, offers a lighter foil to the grave Church officials during Joan's trial, with a gift for undermining the serious air of the proceedings with a casual remark, always given a spot-on delivery.

The production quite literally shines thanks to Scott Pask's splendid scenic design, which creates spaces using pipe elements reminiscent of an organ, gleaming in gold. Additional texture is added by Christopher Ash's cleverly employed projection design which ranges from subtle, like a breeze moving across the stage, to immersive. A dreamy backdrop for the epilogue is especially easy to get lost in.

Justin Townsend's lighting design provides a nice complement to the environment, as does the sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Jane Greenwood's costumes offer additional visual flourishes, contrasting the darker tones worn by the soldiers with the bright colors of some of the royals and Church leaders.

Such contrasts are at the very essence of Shaw's project in Saint Joan, as he probes the motivations and the merits of each side's actions. The true feat, though, is that he is able to explore them while avoiding strict binary logic. Not being a hero doesn't make someone a villain; such distinctions aren't the main concern here.

What we get is a heightened study in what it means to believe in your convictions with such intensity and confidence that you could die or kill for them—an idea that seems remote until Shaw's thoughtful and sharp writing puts us in the uncomfortable position of seeing the reason, as well as the flaws, behind each character's perspective. This is a work filled with complex, difficult characters, a challenge from which Sullivan, Rashad, and the rest of the cast do not shy away.

Often, we look to see such complexity resolved. The satisfaction of MTC's Saint Joan comes from its refusal to do so, forcing us instead to embrace and grapple with its ambiguity.

For more about George Bernard Shaw with links to plays by him reviewed at CurtainUp, see Shaw's page in our Playwrights Album

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Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Condola Rashad (Joan), Walter Bobbie (Bishop of Beauvais, Cauchon), Adam Chanler-Berat (The Dauphin, Charles VII), Jack Davenport (Earl of Warwick), John Glover (Archbishop of Rheims/A Gentleman), Patrick Page (Robert de Baudricourt/The Inquisitor), Daniel Sunjata (Dunois), Maurice Jones (Page to Dunois/Canon de Courcelles), Russell G. Jones (Monseigneur de la Trémouille/Page to Warwick), Max Gordon Moor (Gilles de Rais, Bluebeard/Brother Martin Ladvenu), Matthew Saldivar (Bertrand de Poulengey/Canon John D'Estivet), Robert Stanton (Steward to Baudricourt/Chaplain de Stogumber/An English Soldier), Lou Sumrall (Captain La Hire/The Executioner); and ensemble Tony Carlin, Ben Horner, Mandi Masden, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Rudko, and RJ Vaillancourt
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Projection Design: Christopher Ash
Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson
Makeup Design: Tommy Kurzman
Original Music: Bill Frisell
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Jane Grey
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
MTC's Friedman Theater 261 W. 47h St.
From 4/03/18; opening 4/25/18
Reviewed by Jacob Horn at 4/21/18 press preview

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