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Broadway Reviews

Saint Joan

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 25, 2018

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Projection design by Christopher Ash. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Makeup by Tommy Kurzman. Original music by Bill Frisell. Dialect coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Condola Rashad, Walter Bobbie, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jack Davenport, John Glover, Patrick Page, Daniel Sunjata, Maurice Jones, Russell G. Jones, Max Gordon Moore, Matthew Saldivar, Robert Stanton, Lou Sumrall, Tony Carlin, Ben Horner, Mandi Masden, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Rudko, and RJ Vaillancourt.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Condola Rashad
Photo by Joan Marcus

George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, first staged in 1923 just three years after the Maid of Orléans was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, remains an endlessly fascinating study of faith and politics and the power of one woman to shake up the institutions of both, though at a terrible price. The Manhattan Theatre Club's production, which opened tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a quieter interpretation than most and asks us to pay attention to the circumstances that carried the teenaged Joan first to a position of leadership and then, not long after, to her fiery death and martyrdom.

It is no insult to Condola Rashad's central performance in the title role to say that this production, directed with intelligence and a great respect for Shaw's words by Daniel Sullivan, brings out the complexity of the story, so that we see Joan as a pawn as well as a torch-bearer. Ms. Rashad's applause-garnering defiance ("What is my business? Helping mother at home?") makes us think about who Joan is as a person. She will not be a saint for another five hundred years, after all. For now, she is just Joan the Maid. Even if she is illiterate and naïve, she is no fool. Early on, a captain in the French army and Joan's first official contact, Robert de Baudricourt (Patrick Page), makes it clear that she is no simple "farm wench" but a member of the bourgeoisie whose father is a farmer on his estate. And later, during her trial for heresy, she asserts her place in the social order: "If we were as simple in the village as you are in your courts and palaces, there would soon be no wheat to make bread for you."

As an actress, Ms. Rashad brings an honest naturalism to her performance. It hasn't always worked for her. Her Juliet in Romeo and Juliet a few years back came off as far too contemporary for Shakespeare's poetry. But Shaw isn't Shakespeare, nor does he mean to be. Only rarely is Ms. Rashad called upon to show Joan's ethereal side here, and her down-to-earth approach is well suited to the more modern cadences that Shaw provides for much of her dialog.

In this production, it does seem that Joan's rise to leadership is the result of a timing of history as much as her own doing (or Divine intervention, if you will). When she shows up at de Baudricourt's castle demanding to be given a suit of armor, a horse, and a platoon of soldiers to escort her to see the Dauphin, the captain chalks her up as a madwoman. But she is the first one to step up to the plate in a very long time. The French and English have been at war for 90 years, and soldiering had long since become a tedious job like any other. Why not let Joan have a go at it? If she can goad the Dauphin into taking up the crown as king and actually doing something for his people, then let her have her heavenly voices.

Patrick Page, Howard W. Overshown, Max Gordon Moore,
Condola Rashad, and Walter Bobbie
Photo by Joan Marcus

What is of note here is not Joan's humility before God, but the streak of pride that keeps getting her into trouble. After she has seen the Dauphin installed as King Charles VII and announces that "my work is done," she almost immediately drops her notion of returning to the family farm and decides she should stick around to lead the army into battle to retake Paris. Later, when she herself is captured, she notes that she never would have been caught if she hadn't been spotted wearing her gold coat into battle "like a fool." With all of these touches, and with Ms. Rashad's line delivery, Joan remains grounded in authenticity.

But there also is a part over which she has no influence. That is the tug-of-war between the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the French Bishop of Beauvais (Walter Bobbie), and the secular English government, represented by the Early of Warwick (Jack Davenport). Both actors are excellent in these roles, and their arguments over who will ultimately determine Joan's fate are at least as interesting as those directly involving Ms. Rashad. Warwick wants to try her as a witch; the Bishop wants to try her as a heretic. In either case, what it boils down to is that Joan is a danger to Church and to State because she has bypassed the hierarchy of both by going directly to God and directly to the King.

These debates, along with the scenes of Joan's formal hearing before the Inquisitor (Patrick Page again, in a role where his commanding presence and deep and booming voice mesmerize), capture our attention as much as those with Joan herself. By the time Joan is sentenced to be burned at the stake, we have come to understand the hypocrisy in the Bishop's stated intent to be fair and impartial. Such was never in the cards. All the Church leaders want is an excuse to wash their hands of her and let the State take on the responsibility of executing her as it sees fit.

It is good to see a thoughtful production that allows Shaw to speak for himself. Except for the massive set of church organ pipes that dominates Scott Pask scenic design (why?), there is not a lot of fussiness in the acting or in the other design elements. There are no miraculous crosses or heavenly choirs to accompany Joan to her doom, and the overall tone, except for the formality of the Inquisitor's speeches, has been earthbound for most of the play. The production does incorporate Shaw's epilogue, which has Joan return in one of Charles' dreams 25 years later. It is a little otherworldly, but we can accept that because it is a dream. In it, we learn about the fate of some of the players, and Shaw gives Joan the last word: "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?" For her, at least, it will be another five centuries.

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