Saint Joan

Two intermissions punctuate the three-and-a-half hours of Bedlam Theatre's production of SAINT JOAN, at the Access Theater, and here's a bit of a spoiler: they kick you out for both of them.

Oh, not in a rude way, of course. It's all very orderly and polite. But if you're a hearty soul who likes to sit still through such breaks, with nary a stretched leg or a glass of wine, you'll probably find it jarring when the house manager asks you to gather your belongings and follow her into the lobby. You'll be further shaken fifteen minutes later, when Eric Tucker, the play's director and lead actor, saunters through the lobby to suggest that you find a seat on a couch, because "we'll be hanging out here for a while." (You'll want to take his advice, lest you end up on the floor.) But it's what happens next, there in the lobby, that will make the little trip seem more than worth it. A scene is about to begin, and by the time it's over, you'll realize that you've been watching much more than a bunch of quirky theatrical tricks. In fact, you're in for one of the richest and most exhilarating nights you're likely to spend at the theater for a long time.

Written in 1923, George Bernard Shaw's elaborate script chronicles the brief career of that peasant girl often known as the Maid of Orleans, who claims to hear the voice of God compelling her to guide the French Army against the British in the Hundred Years' War. Her self-assurance wins her some powerful allies, including Robert de Baudricourt and, eventually, the weak-willed Charles VII. By the time we're compelled into the lobby at the Access, we've witnessed for ourselves the seductive pull of Joan's personality, and the persuasiveness of her visions. We've also seen her win a battle by seemingly changing the direction of the wind, to the astonishment of the French commander.

So naturally, it's time for someone to accuse her of witchcraft--- and that's exactly the topic explored by Warwick, the leader of the British forces, his chaplain de Stogumber, and eventually the Bishop of Beauvais. The Church has been meaningfully threatened, and this can't go unpunished. They conclude that Joan must be destroyed, and from that moment on, her fate is never much in doubt, though you will have to re-enter the theater to watch it happen.

Did I mention that the entire play is performed by only four actors? Tucker's directorial style shifts gears so gracefully--- from slapstick to deadpan to melodrama and so forth--- that you would probably forgive him if his acting chops didn't quite match up. But they do. So does everyone else's, and though each of the males successfully navigates a wide roster of parts, it's worth highlighting the most memorable ones. For Ted Lewis, that would be his turn as the vain and whiny Charles, known more commonly as the Dauphin, who longs to be a real King but seems to lack any sort of leadership ability. Tom O'Keefe stands out as the Bishop, who argues most forcefully for the persecution of Joan. The Maid herself is played magnificently by Andrus Nichols, whose silver voice and piercing eyes bring you deep into the mind of this legendary girl.

With its shoestring set, acrobatic staging, and playful vibe, the whole evening could've easily walked the line of precious self-indulgence. But Tucker and his troupe are deadly serious about the themes evoked here, and their dynamic choices actually reflect a mature and careful design. It's hard to imagine a more captivating production of SAINT JOAN, and for all I know, there has never been one. Perhaps, like so many other human pleasures--- orchestral music, red wine, marriage--- productions of Shaw grow stuffy when they're tangled up in money and opulence. A general admission ticket for SAINT JOAN is $30, and given that its full-blooded exuberance will renew your faith in the possibilities of epic theater, it's worth much more.