Sorry for the delay, I know I promised more soon. Then I accidentally started a grassroots movement (which I’m actually pretty proud of) but that has taken all of my spare time. However, I desperately wanted to get this blog written because this show has a limited run and I truly think EVERYONE SHOULD GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW!!! So I am putting the activist typewriter down for a few minutes, and picking back up my theatre one. :)
Today I want to talk about what was the most spectacular piece of theatre that I have seen in a long time. (And, if you are reading this blog, you should realize, I see a lot of theatre.)
St Joan as presented by Theatre Bedlam is well worth the price of the ticket, though, I will warn you, wear comfortable clothes – there is a portion of the show in which you sit upon the floor.
The show was written by George Bernard Shaw and has a cast of about 23 characters. This production has a cast of four actors. Andrus Nicholas plays Joan (of Arc, in case there was any confusion) in a way that can only be described as breathtaking. The arc from young and idealistic Joan, to older and idealistic Joan, to the Joan in the court scene (spoiler alert, if you weren’t aware, things don’t end well for Joan of Arc), to the Joan in the last scene is a feat I cannot imagine seeing anyone else do with the grace, wisdom, and alive-ness that Andrus performs the role – and she manages to not collapse at the end. And if that were the only thing this show had going for it, it would still be a show that is a must see.
However, it is not the only thing going for it, not by a long shot. Remember when I said the show had 23 characters and 4 actors. Ok, Andrus plays Joan, so that’s one - the other 22 characters are played by 3 actors: Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker. Now, I have seen double casting before, I have even done double casting, but I have never seen it the way this show not only did it, but also successfully did it. The coolest thing about their doubles is that it wasn’t a normal this person plays this roll and this roll and that person plays that roll and that roll. On the contrary, in this production, most rolls were played by all three actors, both within the same scenes and in different scenes. What I mean by that is this: Tom may start the scene off as Greybeard (I am almost positive that is the name of an actual character… if it’s not, please forgive me), but by the end of the scene Ted had also played him. And the next scene we see Greybeard in, Eric starts playing him, but Tom finishes the scene as him. This kind of character gymnastics would have been a fiasco in the hands of lesser actors, but these three do it with ease – passing on the physicality’s and the voices of each character to another actor the way most people put on a significant other's coat – warm, comfortable, and the perfect loving fit. I have truly never seen anything like it before. I am more than amazed at their ability to so clearly pull this off. There was never a moment I was confused about what character was talking. What makes this feat even more amazing is that none of the character’s story arcs were lost in the translation. So these men were not only picking up a character from the other actors, but also they picked the character up from the exact emotional point in which it was put down. Seriously, I was blown away by their ability to do this.
We all know by know how I feel about realism versus theatrical realism, but it is worth mentioning again. Especially in light of how well this show does theatrical reality. I am no a huge fan of naturalism on stage because I think that the audience is a key component of theatre, and I think naturalism tends to forget that. But here’s what I forgot, the space itself – the theatre – is also a key component in making the reality. St Joan did not forget this. Not only did they not forget this, but also they used it to their advantage at every turn.
What do I mean by that? Well, the first act is in France, and the audience is sitting in the theatre, watching it happen. Then there is an intermission. At the top of the next act, we are transported to an English camp – except, what I mean by transported to an English camp is that we are literally moved. The top of the second act is in the lobby, flowing seamlessly into intermission so the audience isn’t even aware it’s about to happen until it has (except I just ruined the surprise for you – sorry). The amazing thing about this is how different it feels. The show, as a whole, has very few costumes and props. But it doesn’t need it because they found other ways to solve the problems. Instead of building a set in “England”, they merely took “England” out of the space they had already established was France. The staging choice of the trial scene has a similar effect of taking out what has been done before and forcing the audience to become part of those who would try Joan.
The brilliance of the staging choices is that it left room for Shaw’s words to be heard. At the talk-back, one of the actors, Eric I believe, mentioned that Shaw’s work was a debate. What was most amazing about this production was that the debate never over took the story. And for Shaw, that can be hard work, and almost impossible task.
The thing this show reminded me the most was that when theatrical problems are solved well, they are no longer problems but assets. Part of the creation of a great show is in recognizing that “traditional” theatre might not serve the story you are telling best, and to be ok with taking the risk. I truly believe that most audiences will go with you, if you tell them the rules of the game. And I think sometimes we forget that that is true. This St Joan is defiantly unlike any version of St Joan that Shaw would have ever dreamed of, and yet, this St Joan tells the story he wrote, dare I say it, perhaps better than he wrote it for (or rather, I think this version tells it better than a more “traditional” version would) As theatre practitioner, I think it is important that we challenge ourselves to tell the story in whatever way we can. I believe that playwrights know a lot about telling their story, but I do not believe they know the only way. I think that this St Joan is a perfect example of that. Heck, Paula Vogel said something similar about her work with Anne Bogart – that the wisest thing she learned from Anne was that sometimes the director knows better. Director’s and companies that know this, and have the creativity, ingenuity, and gumption to use this to their advantage have the ability to create works of art, like this on, that will live on as a shining example of what theatre can be.