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Theater Review (NYC): Saint Joan Miraculous and Unbearable

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The Secret Theatre continues their ambitious agenda of dramatic masterworks, following up the recent Julius Caesar with the current production of Shaw’s Saint Joan. It is a germane juxtaposition: Shaw compares Joan’s fall from political grace as the rescuer of France to “the pretensions of Caesar to Cassius.” It is also relevant that, to Shaw and in Shaw’s work, Julius Caesar is Joan’s counterpart—Caesar was Shaw’s “superman,” Joan, his “superwoman.” And she paid the price for that.

Joan of Arc, the narrator explains, was a village girl born about 1412, burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431, rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456, canonized in 1920. Through Joan, Shaw explores issues of organized religion, nationalism, jingo patriotism as Shaw calls it, feminism, the class system—and all this before the end of the first scene. These aren’t issues confined to the 15th century but are parallel to topics of today whenever anyone pushes against social norms.

The success of Saint Joan depends on, well, Saint Joan, and Shelleen Kostabi (pictured) is an excellent Maid of Orleans. She brings the right mixture of naiveté and wisdom, boyishness and femininity: all the contradictions that make up Shaw’s larger-than-life, larger-than-any-one-history-or-religion’s heroine. You share her joy at her successes, and when her saints seemingly desert her, you feel her internal torment.

It’s not only Joan who is complicated, what with her obsession with “France for the French” and her overeagerness for things military. Complex characters are what make up Saint Joan: people who at the same time adhere to and revolt against accepted understandings of history—from the church’s point of view, the state’s point of view, and all through an artist’s reflection. is Joan a martyr? If so, by whose hands? The questions are raised by varied characters, characters who can individually represent differing factions, even if as a whole they seem to be single-minded in their persecution of Joan.

Tim Moore as Peter Cauchon personified some of these contradictions. A Bishop in the French Catholic Church, he is vilified for being Joan’s persecutor, but, as Moore sits in judgment, he exudes the kindness and patience and true caring Shaw’s cleric has for the teenager. When Moore says that “his first duty is to seek this girl’s salvation,” you believe him. And when he is confused and angered by Joan’s insistence that she gets direct messages from God, without the intercession of the Catholic Church, he becomes far from the villain that history would portray; Shaw makes him, and Mr. Moore plays him, as a committed, compassionate man, who loves his church and who makes the best decision he can under the circumstances. Shaw, raised as a Protestant in 19th century Dublin, certainly makes the case for the very real scruples of Cauchon, the Catholic ecclesiastical.

This production, as directed by Ken Neil Hailey, is in full oration mode. Perhaps because Saint Joan followed so soon after Julius Caesar, there is a lot of “Shakespeare” in this Shaw, accentuating the lectures to the detriment of the characterization.

It’s always better to do Shaw without the bombast—hold the spittle and the speech and let the nuance and droll humor emerge. The Inquisitor (Bruce Barton) is described by Shaw as a “mild elderly man with reserves of authority and firmness.” His mildness in text contrasts effectively with the horror of the sentence he wants for the young girl—being burnt at the stake. To “Shakespeare” Shaw, as this production does, only reinforces Shaw’s weakness—the infernal preachiness.

On the whole, the production was too broadly dramatic. Sometimes too comic: one member of the Inquisition seemed to bring the physicality of Monty Python to the court, as in “no one expects the French inquisition.” Sometimes it was too pathetic, with wailing and gnashing of teeth—something that Joan herself rejects in the epilogue. Saint Joan here has wild mood swings. Such an approach is antithetical to the work itself, which tries to separate itself from melodrama: as Shaw says, Joan was “a genius and a saint, about as completely the opposite of a melodramatic heroine as it is possible for a human being to be.” Melodrama interferes with artistic statements of contemporary relevance.

One of the not-so-secret successes of the Secret Theatre is their continued appreciation of the audience in concrete ways. In this production, the audience sat as part of the royal court. First with Bluebeard (the amusing Graciany Miranda who seemed to really enjoy having a bluebeard, literally) as the fake Dauphin, and then we are part of the court with the real heir whom Joan must convince to take his rightful throne and place at the head of his army. This role is played by Jonathan Emerson, who, having been Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar, is now temporarily demoted to the unwilling Dauphin and then reinstated to true monarch as Charles the Victorious who leads the movement to “rehabilitate” the image of Joan but obviously much too little and too late.

Expanding the Gentleman role into a narrator (well played by Chris Rivera) was a clever way to handle some of Shaw’s infamous preface. Sometimes his prefaces would run longer than the play itself. In this case, however, the preface is quite necessary because we are dealing with a historical personage. Without the preface, we would lose such glories as: “There were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous; the other that she was unbearable.”

The Queens Players are correct when they say that Saint Joan is rarely produced—the long running time and the 24 roles can prove unwieldy for a small theatre company—but I was lucky enough to see the 2007 Shaw Festival production that moved from Ontario to Chicago for a successful run. Instead of seeing a melodrama, the audience saw themselves on stage, well-meaning people who destroy their saints.

There are two Shaw plays in New York City right now (and with two Conor McPherson plays, an Enda Walsh play in Brooklyn, and Patrick Fitzgerald’s Gibraltar currently running on the Bowery, I would have to ask: where would New York theatre be without the Irish, but then I would digress).  As formidable as the sublime Cherry Jones is in the present Mrs. Warren’s Profession, across the East River from Broadway Shaw’s greatest female role is taking place in Queens.

Additional cast: Logan Riley Bruner (page), David Douglas (Archbishop of Rheims), Robert Eigen (Warwick), Jaike Foley-Schultz (English soldier), Brother Martin (Cory Hibbs), Gary Lizardo (Robert de Baudricourt), Ari Lew (La Hire), Kurt Roediger (Canon), Greer Samuels (Poulengey), Josh Silverman (De Stogumber), Camilla Skoglie (Duchess), Eric Stephenson (Steward), Randy Warshaw (Executioner), Eric William Whitehead (Dunois), Dalles Wilie (Georges), Jonathan Zipper (Thomas de Courcelles).

The Queens Players Present Saint Joan through November 13.

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About Kate Shea Kennon