As intermission drew to a close on Friday night, the audience of BEDLAM theater company’s production of SAINT JOAN, milling around the cramped lobby space of the Access Theater sipping wine, making small talk, and fiddling with smartphones, were politely called to attention by the show’s director and lead actor, Eric Tucker, now surprisingly standing behind the make-shift concession/ticket table. About an hour earlier, each of those audience members had been buzzed into the theater from a street-level intercom, and walked up four flights of stairs to the Access’s tiny performance space. Now Mr. Tucker was asking them to find a spot to get comfortable in the lobby: on the couch, in a folding chair, on a spot on the floor, or, as I, simply standing as out of the way as possible (which was still somewhat in the way). Then came scene four of SAINT JOAN, the landmark play that accelerated George Bernard Shaw to the Nobel Prize, while scandalizing a nation forced to rethink its jingoist investments in history, played out in the cramped lobby of a fourth-floor walkup theater with the audience clutching their jackets and awkwardly shifting in their uncomfortable positions. And it was wonderful. Portrayed in its entirety by three role-juggling actors and one powerful Andrus Nichols as Joan, this SAINT JOAN forgoes custom and tradition in favor always of innovation and exploration of the possibilities offered by theater and performance. It is an approach that could be disastrous, but it is by teetering ever vigilantly on the edge of that disaster that this brilliant production succeeds in bringing Shaw’s play to vivid life. BEDLAM leaves Shaw’s words by all accounts unmolested, and brings out the depth of his characters with great sympathy and skill, but it treats nothing about the theatrical experience as presumed or immutable. From the lobby to the audience’s seats, the actors use every nook and cranny of the Access Theater’s space for their performance; they do away almost entirely with things like scenery and set pieces; and they treat any notion of a fourth wall as the improbable fiction that it is. Boldly stripping away pretenses of theatricality results in a deeply engrossing production that presents Shaw’s fabulous play in an almost pure form. The star of this production is SAINT JOAN, and the play shines in that role with a newfound luster.
SAINT JOAN is Shaw’s chronicling of the rise and fall of Joan of Arc. Set in fifteenth-century France during the Hundred Years War between the French and English, the play gives us first a giddy and wide-eyed Joan, emboldened by voices that she is convinced are Saints Margaret and Catherine giving her orders from God to lead the French army in ridding their land of the English occupiers. Although the idea seems as preposterous as it does impossible, her conviction and exuberance wins over noblemen, royalty, and perhaps most importantly, the soldiers that will follow her. After leading the army in a series of improbable and momentous victories, Joan finally runs headlong into the resistance of political and military pragmatists (to say nothing of the power-hungry religious leaders) who seek to restrain her determination: she wants to chase the English out of Paris, while the king and military leaders, convinced it is a disastrous tactic, remain stalwart in their opposition to her. Although Shaw shows great admiration for Joan, he does not presume to alter history in order to save his heroine from the results of her steadfast impetuousness. Over the course of the play, Joan wavers only briefly in her devotion to the holy mission delivered by her “voices,” but we watch as she grows increasingly frustrated, disheartened, and dumbfounded by what she perceives as weak conviction in her fellow humans. Mr. Tucker’s bold staging decisions get to the heart of this play by accentuating the debates and conflicts that define each of its scenes. If this play were Shakespeare’s (whose Joan of Arc in the first part of HENRY VI is an entirely different character, awash in English prejudice and mockery), we would surely get pitched battle scenes a la Hereford and Agincourt; but this is Shaw, so instead we get lively discussion, debate, and a bandying of ideas rather than swords. This production emphasizes debates by deemphasizing people. Mr. Tucker is joined by Ted Lewis and Tom O’Keefe in the theatrical acrobatics of giving voice to nearly two dozen characters. Often actors shift roles mid-scene, and occasionally two actors move in and out of the same character in the same scene. The effect could be dizzying, but the company achieves it with masterful subtly and clarity. Moves between characters are signaled by things like a slight shift in vocal tone or accent, the negotiation of a prop like donning or removing glasses, or even in a mannerism: Bluebeard, for instance, is always marked by an idle twirling of chin whiskers. The effect of this character shifting is heightened by the actors’ uniformly strong performances, each traversing an impressive range. Mr. Lewis, for example, must play both the petulant Dauphin (France’s crown prince) and the irascible English Chaplin de Stogumber, both of whom (like the rest of the play’s characters) are given full development, managing to stand on their own as distinct characters.
Shaw’s title character—who he called “the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages”—of course demands the most attention, and Ms. Nichols is a joy to watch as she expertly moves Joan from a child-like wonder at the power of God and the glory of France through stages of frustration and naiveté at the overbearing power of the political to a unadulterated bewilderment with the men who come to dictate her fate. As Joan’s faith in God and the righteousness of her mission is so very strong, the character risks an unappealing flatness, but Ms. Nichols manages to show us Joan preserving her steadfast faith in the immortal beyond, while growing increasingly frustrated in her negotiations of the everyday. Like Brecht’s Galileo and Arthur Miller’s John Proctor, Shaw’s Joan is backed into a corner by the vicissitudes and caprice of a religious court, and BEDLAM’s presentation of Joan on trial literally backs its title character into a corner, with the powers of the church and even the audience—embedded into the scene—bearing down on her. Here, with the audience in arm’s reach, Ms. Nichols shows most clearly and brilliantly the anguish that engulfs Shaw’s Joan. A complete SAINT JOAN—as this one is—takes a good long time, but BEDLAM’s production seems neither tedious nor rushed. Its nimble negotiation of space and theatricality keeps a very long play alive and invigorated, while never losing focus on its playwright’s deep introspection of the complex character at its center (one hopes that the company’s coming production of HAMLET reaches similar heights). Sardonic to the hilt, and wholly irreverent of pretense and custom, George Bernard Shaw is a particularly fitting subject of BEDLAM’s deconstruction of theatrical expectations. If ever there was a Nobel Prize winner that would be delighted to see his work presented in a cramped and commonplace TriBeCa lobby, Shaw is it. The danger here is that BEDLAM’s innovative maneuvers outshine the play, but this is far from the case. BEDLAM’s SAINT JOAN captures the soul of Shaw’s play, and puts it before us in a stripped-bare, unpretentious, and completely riveting production. SAINT JOAN Written by George Bernard Shaw Directed by Eric Tucker EXTENDED! 4/24 – 5/13, 2012 Access Theater 380 Broadway (at White Street) New York, NY http://www.theatrebedlam.org/