L to R: John Russell, Samantha Steinmetz, Stephan Wolfert, Spencer Aste. Photo by Gabriella Nissen.
Written by: George Bernard Shaw
Directed by: Eric Tucker
Presented by: Stark Naked Theatre
Run dates: Through June 18, 2016
Growing up in Toronto, just a short drive away from the venerable Shaw Festival, I had the fortune of being exposed to the deliciously wordy Irish playwright at an early age. Barely a summer passed where I didn’t sit in a dark theatre and chew on Shaw’s provoking ideas, witty quips and human commentary. And I loved every minute of it. Even when those minutes sometimes seemed endless under the weight of Shaw’s lengthy and often times stuffed just over the brim scripts.
So when I heard that we in Houston were to be treated to New York theatre company, Bedlam’s take on Shaw’s Saint Joan, I was cautiously optimistic. You see, this is a company that strips bare the padding of classic plays. No elaborate sets. No grand costumes. No huge cast. No large stage. Just a handful of actors, the playwright’s words and fairly simple staging in order to transport us. Could Shaw’s work stand up to this kind of Spartan treatment? Do we need the frills to help entertain us when things get overly verbose? Could we sit for 3.5 hours with nothing but four talented actors playing multiple roles in simple dress telling us the story of Joan of Arc?
The answer is resoundingly yes.
Not only yes, but to my delight, this bare bones treatment not only was eminently watchable, it was an exciting and utterly fresh experience that allowed us to engage with the work in a whole new manner. So, rather than review the play in traditional form – you can look up the synopsis for Saint Joan here if you want plot details https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Joan_(play) – I’ll instead make some observations about why Bedlam’s take was so successful.
One of the first things that struck me was that the houselights remained on for the entire first act. With a tiny stage and an audience on three sides, this could have led to numerous distractions away from the actors and action. Instead, it brought us communally closer. We felt like a band of witnesses all together involved in this intimate thing being created.
We the audience were as exposed and bare as the actors on stage and it made us listen even more intently, almost as if in direct conversation with the dialogue. Unlike other viewings of Shaw, the words didn’t come at us, they were among us.
We all know that on stage great dialogue lives and dies with those that deliver it. In this case, the uniformly strong cast (with special mention to Spencer Aste) did Shaw’s dialogue justice and then some. But it was in a different way that we may be used to.
Director Eric Tucker has injected casualness into the delivery that while still voluptuous with Shaw’s erudite language, feels modern and relatable and devilishly funny in places. Most importantly, there is an ease to listening. Look, I won’t lie. There have been many Shaw productions where I’ve had to take a small mid show mental time out in order to recover from the bombardment of language. But not here. The ease with which the dialogue is delivered is equally rewarded by our pleasure in listening to it.
The Comedy of Switching Characters
All three men in the production play multiple characters (Steinmetz plays only Joan) and it makes for some great physical gags. Changing nothing but their expressions and stances and perhaps donning a hat or glasses or a robe, the actors provide us with a whirlwind of supporting roles, sometimes only seconds apart.
Shaw is often witty, but to see his work be physically funny as well was like a swish of sorbet cleansing the palate for the headier moments to come. My only quibble here is that amidst some of the whirlwind character changes, I was a bit lost at times as to who exactly some of the bit players were.
Anyone who has sat through Shaw knows that intermissions are a must. Bedlam knows this and goes one step further, not only giving us a break, but moving us to an entirely different space for Act 2 and then back again to our reconfigured original space for the final Act.
It reminded me of an interview I once read with Sting about his formula for writing a compelling pop song. Just when folks are getting used to the rhythm, he explained, you need to change it up dramatically to keep the listener’s brain engaged.
In Saint Joan, the physical move was not only a fun surprise; it went a great distance in keeping our brains interested and involved.
Scene that blew me away
And by best I mean not the best acted or the best written, but the moment that gave me shivers for just how cleverly it was realized.
Joan is on trial for heresy, her verdict is near. She stands alone on the stage in spotlight. Her many male accusers shout out questions, allegations, indictments offstage from the dark alleys in and behind the audience. We see them in shadow only as they run around to various places to hurl insult, all the while Joan looking out at the voices trying to respond.
The aural effect is of a crowd. We know there are only three actors out there, but the darkness, the tension; the surround sound effect makes the effort feel huge and Joan’s fate all the more dramatic. It’s a brilliant piece of staging that gets distinctly under our skin.
Saint Joan has never been my favorite Shaw play. Yes there are some great debates including one concerning miracle vs fraud and as per usual some wonderfully biting satire about the English. But I’ve never felt it has the same gravitas as other works. Plus there is the silly epilogue where a very dead Joan materializes in character’s dreams so we can catch up what became of them and learn of her beatifying.
None of which Bedlam and their terrific production can really do much about.
But what they can and did do was give us a Saint Joan like we’ve never seen it before. And in doing so, taken a good (if not altogether great) play and made it thrilling to watch.
Many thanks to Stark Naked for bringing this show to us here in Houston.