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Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through June 10, 2018
Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata in Saint Joan (photo: Joan Marcus)
Joan of Arc has attracted artists for centuries, and Bernard Shaw was no exception. His 1923 classic Saint Joan dramatizes how the 15th century French teenager managed to convince military and royal leaders to give her an army against the English, which she did spectacularly and successfully until she was finally captured, tried and burned at the stake.
But in his play, Shaw decided to forego—except for the long, engrossing trial scene in which competing dogmas and ideologies are put to the test—showing the obvious “big” scenes: we never see Joan in battle, we never see her capture or her execution. As always, Shaw’s interest was in the psychology, politics and morality; with Saint Joan, he had a huge canvas on which to work out such themes, even finding room for a playful epilogue that might seem to belong to a more irreverent treatment.
What a director must do is keep Saint Joan fluid without degenerating into static scenes of exposition and dialogue. Daniel Sullivan partially solves that with some judicious if not entirely necessary cutting: Shaw’s words are so poetic and pregnant with meaning that even too many of them aren’t problematic. Sullivan’s sober atmosphere also helps his mainly absorbing production from tripping itself up.
Scott Pask’s uncluttered set is dominated by what appear to be organ pipes hanging from the ceiling, which also allow Shaw’s words to remain center stage. And the males surrounding Joan—the French and British military and religious leaders and the Dauphin, the French regent who later became King Charles VII—are enacted by several serious stage actors like Jack Davenport, Patrick Page, John Glover, Walter Bobbie and Daniel Sunjata, all of whom provide a perfect balance of gravity leavened with humor.
Only Adam Chanler-Berat falls prey to overacting, making the Dauphin more boyish and immature than Shaw calls for—inexperienced and foolish is one thing, but foppish and campy is quite another. Condola Rashad’s Joan is well-spoken and girlish—sometimes too much so, as when she looks out into the audience with wide eyes to show off her youthfulness—but rarely compellingly tragic: as technically accomplished as she is, Rashad only finds Joan’s soul in her fleeting final moments begging for mercy from her prosecutors.
Saint Joan—which has been accurately described as “a tragedy without villains”—is one of Shaw’s most complex works, and Rashad and Sullivan provide an intermittently challenging interpretation.
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
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