Rashad photos by Joan
by Deirdre Donovan
Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan is a comedy, tragedy and romance wrapped into
one powerful drama. Over the years, it has been staged in strikingly
different ways from the raucous to the subdued. As the Manhattan Theatre Club
presents it (at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre), it is a sober and direct
play. Although it suitably chimes with the ideas and morality of the Middle
Ages, it fails to say anything new about the old classic or speak with any
immediacy to our culture.
what’s missing from this show that keeps it from elevating? In a word:
passion. To keep Shaw’s dramaturgy airborne, there really must be an urgency
that is palpable on stage. After all, the historical Joan was a world-class
upstart, and to mute the passion in a Saint Joan production is to
deprive the piece of its soul.
play unspools in six acts. It dramatizes the life of Joan, a village girl from
Lorraine, born around 1412, and burnt as a heretic in 1431. It presents Joan
as a visionary, a teenager who hears mystical “voices” and has visions of Saint
Catherine, Saint Margaret, and the archangel Michael, which led her to
undertake nationalistic campaigns and fulfill her holy destiny. Though she
would first impress the rulers with her courage and military acumen, they soon
grew wary of the lass who dressed like a soldier, heard heavenly “voices,” and
could converse with a peasant and king with equal ease. When the statesmen and
ecclesiastics realized her political influence was growing, and that her
engaging personal character made her popular wherever she set foot, they set
out to destroy Joan.
we get in the current production is a musty replication of Shaw’s’ play.
Although Daniel Sullivan, who directs, has pared down Shaw’s epic play to two
hours and 45 minutes (uncut, it can run well over 3 hours), it still feels
drawn out. We follow Joan’s journey to the Castle of Vaucouleurs, her raising
of the siege of Orleans, the coronation of the Dauphin Charles (Adam
Chanler-Berat) at Rheims, her capture at Compiegne, the trial and execution at
Rouen, and the surreal epilogue that illuminates her rehabilitation in history.
While it’s easy to get the gist of Shaw’s story here, the stodgy presentation
makes this Saint Joan little better at times than listening to a high
school history lesson on the Maid of Orleans.
who has an astonishing track record for inventively mounting Shakespeare plays,
seems to stumble with Shaw’s tragedy. Indeed, it is puzzling that he should
stick to such a traditional approach with Saint Joan and not employ his
characteristic innovations to a warhorse. After all, who can forget his
smolderingly good Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino) in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater that later transferred to Broadway that same year? Most
recently, Sullivan deftly directed John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart on
the Great White Way, not to mention his last season’s The Little Foxes.
current Saint Joan is performed by a large cast with the likes of
Broadway veterans John Glover and Patrick Page as well as Walter Bobbie, who’s
back on stage after a 20-year hiatus. Rashad, however, is the real star turn
here. Rashad, who brought us a compelling performance last season in A
Doll’s House, Part 2 on Broadway, proves with this latest performance that
she is still in her ascendancy. Rashad has a genuine gift for portraying young
women who have a sure sense of their identity and can’t be rattled by their
superiors. Her Joan has bite—and is altogether convincing as she encounters
friends and foes alike, leaving a lasting mark on each principal.
Patrick Page, Howard W. Overshown, Max
Gordon Moore, Condola Rashad, Walter Bobbie
a few other actors deserve mention: Page, doubling as the nobleman Robert de
Beaudricourt and the Inquisitor, is excellent in the former role as he meets
Joan and sizes her up in Act 1; in his latter role, Page comes through as the
epitome of the pious churchman who coldly sticks to the letter of the law.
Adam Chanler-Berat sensitively inhabits the Dauphin like a spoiled child who
enjoys his creature comforts but wants nothing to do with the bloody battlefield.
And Walter Bobbie as the French Bishop of Beauvais ably projects the dilemma of
an ecclesiastic who must adhere to the church’s rigid rules and yet still try
to remain a man of compassion.
last time I encountered a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan in New
York was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in the East Village where the
then-fledgling Bedlam Theatre Company was mounting Saint Joan and Hamlet
in repertory in 2014. Directed by Eric Tucker, their Saint Joan
(Andrus Nichols performed Joan) didn’t have the handsome look and feel of the
current Broadway production. But it really packed an emotional wallop. Even
though we knew at all times the outcome of the story, a feeling of suspense
coursed through each and every scene, and we experienced the play as a real
said, this current production doesn’t have the same suspense or intimacy of the
Off Broadway venture. The theatergoer is distanced, not only in a physical,
but emotional sense from the stage. Perhaps if the performers had at times
used other parts of the theater beyond the stage proper to execute the action,
the production would have felt less wooden. But as the play is presented, all
the performers literally remain on the boards, totally ensconced in their 15th
complaints with the creatives. Scott Pask’s set, which looks like the interior
of a giant pipe organ, lends elegance to the piece, and Justin Townsend’s
radiant lighting brings a touch of faith to the goings on. Jane
Greenwood’s period costumes summon up a picture of the gruff and the glorious,
with a mix of soldiers’ armor, ecclesiastics’ vestments, and a royal’s robes.
And let’s not forget, Obadiah Eaves’ original sound design that tonally blends
in with the ambience of the Middle Ages.
Sullivan’s staging is far from a definitive St. Joan, when it comes to
the acting, Rashad is heaven-sent. Rashad, not only joins in the distinguished
ranks of her predecessors, (think Judi Dench, Zoe Caldwell, Eileen Atkins,
Maryann Plunkett, and more), but adds her own signature to the part.
the Manhatttan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261
W. 47h Street, Manhattan
tickets and more information, phone 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or visit
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission