St. Joan of the Stockyards
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
June 20, 2007
Bertolt Brecht's St. Joan of Stockyards updates the tale of the young French saint to the 1920s, when the lines of manipulation through which people are controlled are a little more obvious. In a world where the mysteries of religion have begun to fade in favor of the overt power of commerce, Joan's faith begins to seem precious and misguided. Fittingly, director Lear deBessonet keeps tight control over this fascinating production, letting the actors build up steam but never letting us forget that we are watching deBessonet's interpretation of Brecht, that most particular of theatre artists.
The drama in St. Joan begins with the capitalists who run the stockyards, in the person of scheming mega-tycoon Mauler, who executes a deal that will advance his position, while at the same time devastating the lives of the 50,000 workers whose livelihoods are in the stockyards. Enter Joan of the Black Hats, a Salvation Army type organization whose events draw dozens of workers to hear their song and prayers, but only as long as their soup holds out. Desperate to find a way to connect to the workers, Joan finagles a tour of the stockyards. She is stunned by the bestiality of the workers that she sees ("they believe in nothing but what they hold in their hands") but does manage to stun Mauler with her simplicity and beauty. When a worker offers her a dangerous position in order to advance himself, she takes it, and finds herself trapped among the workers as she begins to see the corruption in all the larger institutions, including her own black hats.
deBessonet and set designer Justin Townsend have created a fascinating world, which shifts easily between the stockyards, the livestock exchange, and the home of the Black Hats, reminiscent of an old music hall. The clear plastic enclosure that is wheeled on and off to represent Mauler's office serves as a fabulous contrast between the rolling barrels and flying ropes that serve to create chaos everywhere else. The finale takes full advantage of this in a triumphant bit of spectacle that sends you out of the theatre dazed and unsure whether you should have enjoyed what was technically a downer ending quite so much.
The cast serves Brecht's purpose of having you focus on the ideas rather than the particular humans who embody them with an admirable and entertaining variety of commedia-style caricatures. Kristen Sieh hits just the right touch with her naive and innocent but not completely selfless Joan, and Richard Toth is fabulous as the cruel, majestic, and changeable Mauler. I also enjoyed Jonathan Co Green's many clever turns, and Michael Crane's sneering, evil Slift, Mauler's underling. The production features the live, country-inflected music of Kelley McRae throughout, which didn't make a huge impact on me but is certainly pleasant and adds nicely to the atmospherics.
Brecht's play holds to the point of view that communism is the only way for mankind to proceed fairly; either we all advance together or some of us go far while some of us go nowhere. It is interesting in this play that the communists are rather minor characters; their plots are thwarted because of the failure of the workers to move as one. Rather than hitting us over the head with a heroic communist hero, in St. Joan of the Stockyards Brecht simply shows us the world as it is without one. We would, he hoped, draw our own conclusions.