Underground Theater's "St. Joan": It's Bedlam

Eric Tucker, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe & Edmund Lewis, the Entire Cast of "St. Joan"
(photo courtesy of Bedlam)

What do you get when you have four actors playing some two dozen roles over the course of three hours? Why, bedlam, of course; that is, New York’s Bedlam Theater Company, now performing in Underground Railway’s current presentation of “St. Joan”, by George Bernard Shaw. Named as one of the New York Times’ Top Ten Plays of 2013, it’s an admittedly lengthy show (it is Shaw, after all), but goes by amazingly quickly, thanks to its pluperfect pacing, as directed here by Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s co-founder. The company’s other founder is Andrus Nichols, who plays Joan. The other actors in the company are Tom O’Keefe, Edmund Lewis (the latter seen recently in ART’s “The Tempest”) and Tucker himself. They’re all accomplished actors individually, but as a unit they’re a dynamic quartet indeed. All of them perform at breathtakingly full throttle, in what can truly be called immersive theater. At several points, sections of the audience had to move their seats, a strikingly concrete metaphor for the company’s revelatory approach to Shavian wit and wisdom.

This Joan’s arc is presented as neither progressing from peasant girl to saint nor as evolving from activist to madwoman. Straight off the farm, she’s pure and simple, as the company’s note puts it, an “illiterate intellectual, a true genius whose focus on the individual rocked the Church and the State to their cores”. Genius or not, this Orleans maid is unquestionably one of the most controversial figures in the herstory of Christianity. Condemned in her lifetime as a heretic (for reasons more political than doctrinal), she was canonized four hundred years later by the same hierarchical body that had reviled her. Putting aside for the moment the fact that her vision (and visions) of God was that of a bellicose one who chose sides, one can’t but admire her virtuous if naïve steadfastness. As Shaw puts it, her crime was simplicity, seen as heresy, and her punishment one of political necessity. The play gets off to a relatively slow start, given the amount of necessary exposition and historical context. Once Joan has confronted her accusers, both religious and secular, the question hangs in the air: are her voices from God coming from her imagination? (To which her answer is, where else?). Disbelievers are converted when the wind changes (quite literally, as a result of her prayers). Shaw then presents a fascinating debate about the new “protestant-ism” and “national-ism”.

Then it’s back to the viscerally protesting protagonist and the question of her pride or humility; she’s convinced she’s right to do as she does, so is this arrogance or obedience? As Shaw has her say about confronting the religious and secular authorities, “If there were no if and then, no pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers”. Joan herself exacerbates her fate by choosing to break rules, whether of organized religion, class, or gender. Her life inspired the likes of Voltaire and Mark Twain, Brecht and Schiller, Anouilh and Shaw, Cecil B. DeMille and Otto Preminger, among countless other re-creators. In an era when any women, much less peasant farm girls, were listened to or had their words and deeds recorded, on this basis alone she was miraculous. As Tucker notes in the program, this production, unlike most that are concerned with sheer length, includes the epilogue in which Joan argues that if she had been a man, they would not have been so frightened of her; she forgives them all, as everyone thought that she or he was doing the right thing.

In the hands of this stalwart group, aided by the simple Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski (including the projection of a subtle rose window), Shaw and his version of the Maid of Orleans (a force for social justice if there ever was one) once again come back to life. It’s an exemplary and inspiring troupe, this Bedlam, providing the sort of ensemble acting for which one dreams. And, in the end, the irony is that all of the players in the real-life drama are today remembered because of Joan, and she because of them: “They would not remember me as well if you’d not burned me”. So it often is with ardent activists who inflame the establishment of their day. In the end, as Shaw has her proclaim, “It is to God that we (all) must answer”. And, with this production, the theater gods must be very well pleased.

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