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Shows Worth Seeing:

Saint Joan
By George Bernard Shaw
Access Theater
380 Broadway
Reservations online HERE

For decades after it appeared in 1923, Saint Joan was one of Shaw’s most frequently performed plays. With Joan of Arc freshly canonized in 1920 and totalitarianism of various sorts devouring millions, this powerful martyr drama, with its eloquent, pointed, scrupulously fair debates about the danger and worth of individual vision, had self-evident poignancy and force. It’s much more rarely seen nowadays—not because its ideas have lost any political sting but because of the same problems that keep hundreds of other great dramas of the past from our stages: we lack patience for intensely verbal immersion lasting longer than 90 minutes or so, and we don’t want to pay for large casts and multiple settings.

A scrappy and talented company called Bedlam has gamely decided to ignore these gloomy facts and produce Saint Joan anyway with the resources it has, which is to say, not many: four actors and a more or less empty room. The result is extraordinarily delightful and potent. Joan is played by the sole woman, Andrus Nichols, and the three men, Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis and Eric Tucker (who also directs), play all 23 other roles. Their costumes are ordinary street clothes occasionally supplemented with vests, jackets, hats and the like (none too exact—a motorcycle helmet is armor), locations are established with place-names scrawled on furniture and walls, roles are switched willy-nilly with a simple altered expression, accent, or a shifted body position. And it must be said that this technique doesn’t always work, as some scenes in the play are just too complicated and populous to follow closely through such screens.

What does work marvelously are the main characterizations (Nichols, irritatingly pushy at first, rises magnificently to the moral grandeur of Joan by the end, for instance), and the debating scenes when the characters volley vigorously with strongly opposed ideas. The verbal sparring in the climactic encounters is simply thrilling. It’s the energy and conviction of these four performers—their sheer investment in what they’re saying and doing—that creates the tenacious texture of the evening. That and the quality of Shaw’s language, of course. Tucker also maintains interest by varying the configuration of the tiny 4th-floor performance space, moving the audience around to different viewing positions in ways that cleverly underscore Joan’s narrowing position in her world. It’s no small achievement to hold any audience rapt for three and a quarter hours; to do so while abandoning theatrical spectacle to the degree this show does is remarkable indeed.



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