Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
When we first meet Joan she is pleading with Robert de Baudricourt to provide her with a horse, men, and armor so she can go to the Dauphin and lead the French troops to victory over the English. Although she is only a young farmer's daughter, there is something about her that convinces Baudricourt to support her campaign. Guided by the voices of Saints Margaret and Catherine, Joan wins over Charles VII and leads the French to a series of important military victories. We soon learn that Joan is not merely a military menace to the English, but also an ideological threat to their most powerful institutions. Shaw depicts Joan as a catalyst for both the protestantism that challenged the Catholic Church and the nationalism that eventually destroyed the feudal system. Joan's personal connection with god obviates the church's role as intermediary. Joan's devotion to her sovereign king threatens the superiority of the regional lords. The Catholic Church and the feudal lords join forces to see that Joan is tried and executed as a heretic. In the end she is abandoned even by the French prince and the military officers she lead to victory. A young woman with such conviction and power is too much for even the French leadership to support.
In Quintessence Theatre Group's production, Leigha Kato gives a powerhouse performance as Saint Joan. There is an intensity in Kato's Joan that is instantly compelling and thoroughly convincing. When Kato celebrates Captain de Baudricourt's capitulation the sense of joy she exudes is palpable and when she weeps for her freedom her despair is profound. The supporting cast is strong and provides Kato with plenty to work with and fight against. John Basiulis is genuinely unsettling as the Archbishop or Rheims and the Inquisitor. Josh Carpenter is excellent at the Machiavellian Earl of Warwick. Andrew Betz is an appropriately enraging Dauphin and Alan Brinks is a convincing Dunois.
The costumes are constructed from modern textiles with bright colors and large prints, but Nikki Delhomme ingeniously uses those fabrics to create the silhouettes of feudal dress. Standing in sharp contrast to the black stage, sets, and papers, the surreal costumes draw attention to the characters as flawed individuals. If the black spaces represent ideologies and constructs set free from the yoke of factual histories, then the colorful costumes and the characters who wear them reflect the frustratingly limited realities of a world hemmed in and cut short by the institutions of men.
The production is excellent, but this Saint Joan will not appeal to everyone. If you are looking for easy entertainment or a straightforward story look elsewhere. George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan is a serious play and the Quintessence Theatre Group's production is as unapologetically intellectual as it is emotionally intense.
Quintessence Theatre Group's Saint Joan, through April 22, 2016, at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy Philadelphia. To purchase tickets or subscriptions, visit www.QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 1-215-987-4450.