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Saint Joan

Access Theater

By Elise McMullen-Ciotti
Saint Joan
Photo: Michael Mallard

Access Theater this month revives the renowned play Saint Joan, originally staged in 1924 and written by Nobel Peace Prize winner George Bernard Shaw. 

Let’s just get right to it, shall we? Go see this show. Better yet, go see the show, and if you happen to be a theater supporter, donate to this group.

I usually go to great lengths to explain the plot of a play, but I won’t here, as it would absolutely ruin it. You should go in raw and experience this show like you had wandered off the street. The script, the actors, the production—all are excellent—and relieving, considering that a show written by a notable great, but staged poorly is torture.

Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature with Saint Joan, and it was staged only four years after Joan of Arc’s canonization in 1920. Shaw was a man before his time, foreseeing the role of women in society. The twenties was an era when women were headed towards the glass ceiling at lightning speed. It was the perfect moment to stage a play about a woman exercising leadership, and dispelling ideas of women as “lesser vessels.” Shaw was so riveted by the transcripts of Joan’s testimony that he included literal translations of the trial record into the play. In this production, these scenes were so moving; it was impossible to not be entranced in Joan’s fate, and as she fought to stay alive, the audience fell deep into tears.

The production itself is a celebration of minimalism. Saint Joan is staged with only four actors playing 22 characters. Joan, magnificently embodied by Andrus Nichols, is surrounded and juxtaposed by three other equally astute talents, Ted Lewis, Tom O’Keefe, and Eric Tucker. It takes a moment to realize this is happening, but out of the entire play, there was only one scene with two actors shifting in and out of the same role that rendered the viewer confused.

Tucker also directs. He had staged a production of Saint Joan once before with a fuller cast, and has finally whittled it and cajoled it into a minimalist powerhouse. The set agrees: two chairs, two motorcycle helmets, one hanging medieval painting, years and locations painted upon the walls and the floor; sound and music come from one or two tape recorders carried around by the stage managers. There is no need to encourage pomp and circumstance. No need for extensive lighting, costumes, and hordes of actors. No. Tucker took the written word, garnered great actors, and shot a theatrical spear through the off-Broadway scene.

I hesitate to complain about the one inconvenience I experienced in this show, since it proved to be a significantly brilliant choice by the director. But it’s fair to warn you that you will be asked to leave your seat from time to time—or have your seat taken from you. You will be pushed, coddled, apologized to, and resituated at near exhaustion, but once you understand why this is happening, you will forgive them—completely.

Eighty-eight years after the play’s penning, and nearly 600 years since Joan put her mark upon the history books, this astounding work resurrected onto the New York theater scene is significant. The production is affordable, proving that, like The Fantastics, when something is well written, and well interpreted, and the right talent is found, there is no need for the formulaic marketing structures found on Broadway today. There is no need for a star to carry a show, no need for grand theatrics. Just real talent, doing the real thing.

Saint Joan. Access Theater, 380 Broadway at White Street; 866-811-4111 or www.theatreBEDLAM.org.

 
 
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