By Christopher A. Gellert
Joan of Arc was excommunicated and executed by the Catholic Church, and almost four hundred years later canonized and sainted by that same Church. This event led the playwright George Bernard Shaw to write what may be his best play, if not his most well known.
“St. Joan” is a commanding production, and boasts a Shakespearian cast of twenty-two characters including the titular heroine. Inside the off-off Broadway’s Access Theatre, three actors (Ted Lewis, Tom O’Keefe, and Eric Tucker) play twenty-one of these parts. It seems nearly impossible that all of these sharply different characters, based upon historical figures long dead, could be represented by a mere triumvirate of actors, but this trio does so with distinction. Indeed, actor/director Eric Tucker in some ways steals the show as he portrays a range of characters including the commander of the French army, “the bastard” Dunois, and Robert de Baudricourt.
Joan herself is expertly incarnated by Andrus Nichols—if she is perhaps a little old for the part, no matter. And Nichols’ performance is impressive. But, while Joan is the center of the play, in this version Nichols’ performance involves fewer lines than any of her three male cohorts. And while Joan is the show’s centerpiece, it is the opposition of her that rings strongest in this production—after all, that’s what Shaw was writing about to begin with.
And in this rendition of “St. Joan,” Shaw’s message is delivered magnificently. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anything close to the resounding power—as powerful as “the blessed church bells that send my angel voices floating to me on the wind”—of this Bedlam production, which rings with true clarity.
Part of this is the consummate skill of the actors, and part of it is the rich magnificence of the source material. Of course, the original tale could have easily faded had it not been reconstructed and restored by the venerable George Bernard Shaw. Like the ancient Greek playwrights, Shaw is a master of off-stage action, so that we merely hear about the drama while we are captivated by his words.
And what words they are! Shaw’s lines not only convey the humor and pathos of Joan’s fate as the first protestant martyr (and her achievements as a proto-feminist, a nationalist, and as a soldier), but they do so in a way that brings a true vibrancy to the play. These characters demand vividness while they comment on the feudal aristocracy and the Catholic Church; they are lively as they discuss the fact that established institutions will take any measures to ensure their own survival. And best of all, Shaw asks more questions than he answers.
The run of “St. Joan” has been extended through May 13. Performances are at Access Theatre, 380 Broadway (at White Street). For tickets and more information, see theatrebedlam.org.
Christopher is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.