Theater Review: SAINT JOAN (Bedlam Theatre Company on tour at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

by Tony Frankel on April 7, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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SAVING FAITH

Even with a few blemishes, Bedlam’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 masterpiece Saint Joan is an immersive and ultimately gratifying theatrical experience. The story, told in six scenes and an epilogue, concerns the last two years of Joan of Arc’s life (1429-31): arrival at court and the discovery of the dauphin; leadership of sieges against England; and capture, trial for heresy, and death. Under Eric Tucker’s breathless direction, the three-act three-hour play whizzes by, with the minimalism of the production creating a remarkable sense of immediacy and intimacy. In fact, so strongly does it play up its ragtag elements that the show’s universality sparkles.

The bare-bones outing has limited scenery (John McDermott), costumes (Mr. Tucker), and lights (Les Dickert), which illuminate the house for most of the evening (a touch I personally find distracting and unnecessary). The first act (Scenes I through III in Shaw’s play) is staged proscenium style in front of a backdrop, and the second act (Scenes IV and V) has audience members seated on stage. The viewers return to the house for the third act, which has Joan spot-lit center stage for her tribunal, but it seems spectators on stage would have been better-suited for this scene, so that we can see many faces watching her squirm against her inquisitors and eventual murderers.

Basically all that is used is a table and two chairs, one with “France” written on it, and old tape recorders for scene breaks. The contemporary garb includes cassocks (a timeless touch), riding boots, a motorcycle helmet, and a suit jacket. The goal here is the “O, for a muse of fire” request for the patron’s imagination — a perfect fit given that the future Charles VII of France (“Charley” in Saint Joan) was originally disinherited by his father, who recognized Henry V of England and his heir and legitimate successor to the French crown).

The first act is directed on the border of farce, with lots of yelling and silly running around. The performances sometimes feel forced, more like play-acting than acting. There is, perhaps, an absurdist line being developed here, but it never quite comes to fruition. And although it is not without some entertainment value, it left me somewhat bemused. I’m happy to report that the show really takes off in the second act.

Here Aubie Merrylees, Kahlil Garcia, and Sam Massaro unleash some serious acting power. Their performances finally feel grounded and robust, and the show goes from a half-amusing curiosity to serious and compelling theater. This four-actor production is a rigorous challenge for the three male actors, who play all the parts except Joan’s. This comes to over twenty roles in all, and occasionally performers actually find themselves playing two characters who are having a conversation with one another – a trick exceptionally difficult to pull off.

The men manage well for the most part. As certain characters they shine brilliantly – the high-pitched Mr. Merrylees as Warwick, Mr. Garcia as the dauphin, Mr. Massaro as the archbishop – as some others a little less so. A few of the roles, especially some of the bit parts, are a tad underdone. On the one hand these less-than-excellent characterizations feel like flaws. But on the other, these and other somewhat “sloppy” elements are part of what makes this show feel so cozy and inclusive; it’s as if the actors are your friends who have invited you over and are performing for you. In this way the troop seduces you with their theater – a worthwhile achievement.

It seems an actor must, to some degree, be possessed, or at least obsessed, to play Joan of Arc, a character with one foot in the real world and one in a mystical one. Aundria Brown has a deft grip on that personage’s determination, frustration, anger, fear and courage, delivering a powerful performance full of sincere emotion. She manages quite well when her motivations and obstacles are real and concrete. She plays the mystical elements of Joan — those that set her apart from everyone else and give her supernatural presence, charisma and conviction — as naturally as breathing. While remaining all-too-human, this Maid of Orléans gives us a sense that her world is much bigger and richer than the one we all live in.

In a sense, the High School Shakespeare Festival-type shenanigans don’t always serve to bring us deeper into the world of Shaw’s Saint Joan, but — and this is crucial — this style does highlight the characters’ humanity. Whether or not this works for Hamlet (which these same four actors are performing in rotating rep at The Broad Stage and on tour), remains to be seen. The point here seems to be not so much to create a specific world from a specific play, but rather to create a world of personal and entertaining theater. And at this task the Bedlam group triumphs.

photos by C. King Photography

Saint Joan
Bedlam Theatre Company on tour
in association with ArKtype / Thomas O. Kriegsmann
plays in rep with Hamlet
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St. in Santa Monica
ends on April 15, 2018
for dates and tickets, call 310.434.3200 or visit The Broad Stage
for more info, visit Bedlam

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