January 25, 2017

Shaw’s Maid of Orleans Brings Her Mission to McCarter Berlind, Leads Bedlam Foursome in Celebrated, Stripped Down Production

ON TRIAL: After all her miraculous success in leading the French to victory, Joan (Andrus Nichols) finds herself captured, brought before an ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, and interrogated by the Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) in Bedlam theater company’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson) 

The young heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923) has a lot in common with the celebrated Bedlam theater company that is presenting the play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. “There is something about the girl,” says a soldier in the opening scene of the play, as Joan of Arc wins over the local squire to supply her with a horse, armor, and troops, and, following orders directly from God, she sets out to free the city of Orleans from the English. 

No, Bedlam is probably not divinely inspired, nor is it likely to be canonized or burned at the stake for heresy. But the fearless theater company does resemble Joan in its fierce physical and intellectual energy; its charisma; in its rebellious determination to challenge old, long-accepted ideas; and in its down-to-earth clarity and simplicity.

With only four actors playing more than 25 roles in Shaw’s talky, three-hour, historically-based chronicle of the miraculous Maid of Orleans, Bedlam is committed to making the audience hear the lines and experience the event with minimum distractions of set, costumes, and special effects. There is also minimum distance between performers and audience.

The luminous Andrus Nichols in the title role and dynamic ensemble members Eric Tucker, Edmund Lewis, and Tom O’Keefe — shifting rapidly, convincingly, ingeniously among a colorful contingent of 15th century French and English characters (royalty, clergy, aristocracy, soldiers, peasants) — collaborate with the audience to bring to life the inspiring story of Joan’s rise to power and victory, the revenge of the resentful religious and feudal authorities, and, in a fanciful epilogue, the rehabilitation and canonization of Saint Joan.

The Bedlam quartet is a remarkable ensemble, creating such a vast, vivid world with so few performers, not to mention that the same four, only hours before curtain time on Saturday, had just performed all the parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, being presented in rotating repertory with Saint Joan. Along with various miracles in the story of the young country girl who crowns the French king and leads an army to drive the English from France, let’s include here the miraculous feat of these Bedlam actors and their memorization of hundreds of lines, which they use so deftly to help create dozens of unique characters.

For the final scene, in which, 25 years after the tragic culmination of her life, Joan, as a “dream” visits King Charles VII, whom she had crowned in Reims, the actors actually sit with the audience at different spots in the theater, removing barriers between spectators and performers, sharing the space, making the audience a part of the play.

John McDermott’s stripped-down set design — including just a high, rough-hewn staircase, a couple of chairs, some flexible hanging white cloths, and a chandelier, with lighting by Les Dickert, also demands audience engagement in teaming up with the Bedlam company to imaginatively create a range of locales. The scene moves from castle chambers to riverside military camp to the Cathedral at Reims, the ecclesiastical court, and King Charles’s bedroom during the six scenes presented in three acts.

About 60 audience members sit in chairs on the stage, sharing the space with the actors. The chairs are reconfigured during the two intermissions, as perspectives on the events of the play shift.

Another facet of Saint Joan that illuminates its affinities with the Bedlam ethos is the rich, engaging blend of solemn and comical. Both Shaw and Bedlam take seriously this tragic story and the many ideas — philosophical, religious, political — that emerge from it. There are serious clashes here between the individual and the church, the individual and society.

Joan, dressing in male clothes, asserting her right to answer directly to the word of God, proves to be an intolerable affront to the established religious and feudal hierarchies. Though she was finally canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920, 489 years after her death, Joan’s questions in the closing seconds of the play still resonate almost another century later: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

The serious matter of the play comes across here in eloquent debates and intense drama, as Joan’s conflict comes to its culmination in a searing scene in the ecclesiastical courtroom. Throughout the play, however, Shaw and Bedlam share a lighter tone, with a sharp satiric edge and more than a touch of delightful whimsy. The humor is rich and entertaining, and never undermines the seriousness of Joan’s story and the play’s important ideas.

All four actors are fascinating to watch and impossible to resist in their appeals to engage and immerse the audience in the proceedings. Ms. Nichols’ Joan readily wins over the audience as she proceeds to win over the population of France. “She is so positive,” as they say, and, despite the disarming honesty that annoys her superiors, also convincing — in her moments of enthusiasm, as well as in her anger, frustrations, and despair over her plight and the intransigence of her accusers.

Mr. Tucker, who also directed with unerring inventiveness and sure-handedness, plays the dashing military commander Dunois, the crafty English Earl of Warwick, and a slew of others with skill and aplomb. Mr. Lewis embodies the weak-willed Dauphin (later King of France), then the irascible, mean-spirited English chaplain de Stogumber and another cluster of distinctly interesting characters. Mr. O’Keefe is striking and memorable as the rigid French Bishop Cauchon, the French soldier (and Joan’s early ally) Poulengey, and an impressive array of other characters, religious and otherwise, including a colorful English soldier, who becomes Joan’s last ally.

The unpretentious immediacy of these performances and this production puts the emphasis where it should be: on the text, the story and the rich imaginative experience of audience and performers together.

Bedlam’s production of “Saint Joan,” in rotating repertory with “Hamlet,” will be playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through February 12. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.