Most of us—including devout Catholics, I would hazard—tend to consider Joan of Arc, if we consider her at all, as belonging to a distant, feudal time of Crusades and Inquisitions. After all, it’s hard to think of anything that looks more old-fashioned than Joan of Arc chain mail. (Like that would stop a bullet!) To us, Joan seems demi-mythical, like King Arthur.
When George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan in the 1920’s, the battle-tested, voice-hearing, cross-dressing Joan seemed a bit more present than she does today; four centuries after being burned at the stake in Rouen for heresy, she had just been canonized. Still, Shaw didn’t merely seek to bring the lively story of her military campaigns, trial, and death to the stage; he used it, as always in his plays, to explore issues that continue to drive us, for good and ill, all these generations later.
Then, feudal lords wrestled with kings over local vs. national control; today, governors of U.S. states bristle at federal oversight and send back infrastructure grants in a huff. Then, church and state lived in a marriage of mutual convenience, while doctrinal heresies threatened the polity and caused wars; today, political enmities seethe with the fervor of religious wars, while excessive religious zeal drives fanatics to murder civilians. Shaw lived a long life; born in Dublin before the U.S. Civil War, he lived to see the end of World War Two and beyond. If he returned to us today, 60 years after his death, he would have no trouble recognizing, and eviscerating, our 21st century world.
The great thing about art is that it does stay with us long after its creators are gone. Through the great characters of Saint Joan—among them the Inquisitor, the warrior Dunois (the Bastard of Orléans), and above all the Maid herself—Shaw, like a time-hopping Dr. Who, speaks through the centuries backwards and forwards about nationalism, church and state, the place of women, and so on, all issues that continue to galvanize cultures around the world.
Length and the large number of male roles make it a difficult play to stage, but the Queens Players, as usual, boldly go where few small companies dare to tread. As with their production of Cyrano a year ago, they’ve found a superb lead. Shelleen Kostabi approaches the role with an admirable balance of holy righteousness and teenage vulnerability. Plain as day on her face is her instinct to defer to her elders’ worldliness—the Bastard’s battlefield experience, the Archbishop of Rheims’s religious authority—yet just as evident, and stronger, are her belief in her cause and her certainty that her voices guide her unerringly. It’s a nuanced and generous performance, and the rest of the talented cast measures up well.
Sometimes they over-measure. Director Ken Hailey has staged the play so that we, the audience, are part of the scene—the Dauphin’s court, the courtroom, and so on—and this gives the actors plenty of physical and psychological space. But it is still an intimate theater, and many of the male cast members seem to have honed their performances for a much bigger one. A declamatory style is one possible choice for this wordy play, but it ill matches the you-are-there staging. The more restrained performances, like those of Ms. Kostabi, and the droll Jonathan Emerson as the peace-loving Dauphin, come across more powerfully. Excess, by contrast, adds to the play’s already somewhat exhausting nature.
Despite that flaw it is a most rewarding production; it’s rare in an Off Off Broadway house to see a cast this large with no major weak links, doing a play this strenuous, with perfect pacing and complete professionalism. Such high quality reveals that while audiences in this nearby yet out-of-the-way location may still be relatively hard to come by, the city’s pool of talented of actors has put its seal of approval on Richard Mazda’s Queens Players. Follow their lead across the East River and go pay your respects to this Saint.
Saint Joan plays through Nov. 13 at the Secret Theatre, Queens, NY. Information and tickets here or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.
For additional background and perspective on the play, please see this review by my colleague Kate Shea Kennon.