After Ruined and then last year’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, Condola Rashad is fast establishing herself as one of our finest young actresses. She is presently back on Broadway, offering a steely and, shall we say, saintly performance as the title character in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Written in 1923, or three years after Joan of Arc was canonized by the church, Saint Joan is viewed by some as Shaw’s only tragedy. This reviewer considers it one of Shaw’s only plays that has genuine characters instead of just ideas being bandied about on a stage full of actors. And as directed with a surefire clarity by Daniel Sullivan, the large, sturdy cast brings them to life. (There are 19 players and even more characters, as some of them double and triple their roles–and that’s a lot for an audience-member, not to mention a reviewer, to keep track.) Though it also has its share of weighty ideas, Shaw has a way here of simplifying them, such as when the Archbishop defines a “miracle” as “an event which creates faith.”
Shaw begins Saint Joan by having the Squire of Baudricourt (a commanding Patrick Page) talking to his Steward (Robert Stanton) about eggs or domestic matters. It’s a way of taming the more philosophical investigations that ensue.
It’s the Steward who tells Baudricourt about “the Maid from Lorraine” who “doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.” While explaining that Saints Catherine and Margaret “speak to me every day,” the Maid, or Joan, finagles Baudricourt to have an audience with the Dauphin and “raise the siege of Orleans” against the English. It turns out that Joan has already persuaded another Squire, Poulengey (Matthew Saldivar), to abet her in her cause.
As she works her way up the chain of command to the dithering, jejune Dauphin (an earnest yet almost comical Adam Chanler-Berat), Joan seems to be the only one who takes him seriously, even as she promises to consecrate and crown him King herself. The stalwart John Glover plays the strict and in-control Archbishop who is, at first, suspicious of Joan. But as Poulengey already said, “There is something about her,” and the Archbishop now says, “The Maid comes with God’s blessing and must be obeyed.”
Another outstanding and solid performance is offered by Jack Davenport as the Earl of Warwick, who represents the British in taking Joan to court and ultimately burning her at the stake. After the heinous deed is done–which leads, nearly 500 years later, to her sainthood–the executioner hands Warwick a sack, with something fleshy inside, saying, “her heart would not burn, my Lord.”
Indeed, in an Epilogue, set 25 years after her death, Shaw’s St. Joan lives on, when she joins the Dauphin, now King Charles, in one of his dreams. They are joined in his large bed by several other main characters, and are in turn visited by a modern British man, with a briefcase, who tells Joan–and the others–that she has been deemed a saint.
Honorable mention also goes to Scott Pask for his scenic design, which features large gold poles dangling from above, making the stage resemble an enormous conglomeration of gold organ pipes, which in turn evoke a church, and to Justin Townsend’s lighting design. The offstage fire is indicated, for example, by an orange light projected on those gold poles. And special praise, too, for Jane Greenwood’s storybook, medieval costumes. In these cross-dressing times, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that one of Joan’s biggest crimes was dressing as a man, wearing a suit of armor to lead the French soldiers to battle against the English.
Saint Joan (through June 10, 2018)
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 855-797-3952 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission