THE BASICS: Shaw’s lively take on the short, tumultuous life of the Maid of Orleans is arguably his finest play. The Shaw Festival production, directed by its new A.D., Tim Carroll, plays in repertory at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake through October 15th. There are sixteen in the cast, with quite a number in dual roles. SAINT JOAN, with its single intermission, runs about two hours and forty five minutes.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Shaw’s recounting of the tale of Joan sticks pretty close to the facts, as we know them. We follow the zealous Maid from the beginning of her unlikely military career through her eventual capture, trial, and burning at the stake. In the brilliant epilogue, set in 1920 at the time of her canonization, key ghosts from Joan’s stormy past return for some last, conflicted farewells…
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize for SAINT JOAN in 1926. It’s not hard to see why. This is a mighty play, chock full of engaging debate style dialogue on matters political, philosophical, theological. Except for in Scene Four, where the talk bogs down for a while, the play is very light on its feet. It has a nice, conversational quality. There is also a surprising amount of humor. Would that the present production had been more in gear with these appealing features. Instead, director Carroll and his creative team have gone in another direction, investing their JOAN with a gloomy austerity that harkens back to Greek tragedy. Judith Bowden’s vast, austere sets, with their large geometric forms and lines of light, are creative all right, but are they helpful?? The expressive lighting by Kevin LaMotte gives the production a spooky, almost sci-fi quality. Do we really want SAINT JOAN by way of STAR TREK?
Do we really want SAINT JOAN by way of STAR TREK?
Nor do I have anything too nice to say about the higgledy piggledy costumes. The churchmen, at least, are traditionally garbed. And thank heaven for the few chant style a cappella numbers performed flawlessly by the entire cast–a much needed lifeline back to the 15th century!
Hey, I’m a traditionalist, I admit it. In any conflict between the playwright and the creative team, I’m with the author. They’ll be a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of money this summer to see SAINT JOAN, many I suspect for the first time. Personally, I think that they deserve something closer to the “real deal”. Further, I think that it is the responsibility of the Shaw Festival, as stewards of the GBS legacy, to provide it!
On a happier note, the large cast is, on the whole, very good. Sara Topham, a newcomer to the Shaw Festival, is pretty much everything you’d want in a Joan. The fire, the impetuousness, the innocence, the sweetness, the collegiality, the unvarnished honesty—all there. This production is getting an extra half buffalo on account of Ms. Topham’s bravura performance.
Also engaging are Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the whiny, weasily, somehow loveable Dauphin, and Gray Powell as Dunois, Joan’s savvy, sympathetic comrade-in-arms. Benedict Campbell, as the Archbishop of Rheims, Tom McManus, as the Earl of Warwick and Jim Mezon as the Inquisitor make a fine, diverse trio of antagonists. Mezon’s bloodless Inquisitor is absolutely chilling.
IN SUM: Great play, some excellent players, but the “creative” production calls too damn much attention to itself, and shortchanges the piece significantly, in my view. Still, in these days of Wonder Woman and Donald Trump, SAINT JOAN leaves its audiences with a lot to chew on. All told, it’s probably worth a visit.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!