In the ninth Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” director Daniel Sullivan has assembled a skillful cast of 19 to offer what feels like a straightforward history lesson about Joan of Arc, the 15th century teenage soldier turned martyr and then saint. The lesson is intelligent, competent, at times intriguing, but also talky, statically staged, and a long three hours long.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Condola Rashad (The Trip to Bountiful; A Doll’s House Part 2) portrays Joan of Arc, aka The Maid, a 17-year-old farmer’s daughter who has been hearing voices from Catholic saints urging her to lead the French to victory over their English occupiers. In the first couple of scenes, often drily amusing, we see how Joan calmly and relentlessly convinces first a military squire (stand-out Patrick Page) and then the Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat as the comically childish future King Charles) to allow her to take military command.
The play turns grim over the remaining scenes, in which we learn of the various political, military and religious forces that resulted in her being burned to death at the age of 19 after the Catholic Church convicted her of heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431.
A wry Jack Davenport (who portrayed the director in the TV series “Smash”), making his Broadway debut as the English Earl of Warwick, is the most blunt if a tad two-faced in explaining why she must die: “Her death is a political necessity, which I regret but cannot help.” Cauchon, the red-robed Bishop of Beauvais (Walter Bobbie, the Tony-winning director who hasn’t performed on Broadway for more than 25 years) is less blunt and more two-faced. (“I cannot burn her. The Church cannot take life. My first duty is to seek this girl’s salvation….When The Church cuts off an obstinate heretic as a dead branch from the tree of life, the heretic is handed over to the secular arm. The Church has no part in what the secular arm may see fit to do.”) Patrick Page is a stand-out again in a second role as the High Inquisitor at her trial, a smooth and reasonable man who understands it’s not her fault she’s a threat to the established order – representing (as Shaw sees it) the emergence of nationalism, Protestantism, individualism and secular society.
Even Joan’s most trivial choices, such as dressing like a man, are viewed like a gateway drug to greater sins. For her part, she offers a practical reasons for her actions, including her attire; dressing in petticoats while surrounded by male soldiers would be a constant reminder that she is a woman, and might put her in danger of assault.
Rashad is the ninth actress to portray Joan in Shaw’s play on Broadway – and not, interestingly enough, the first African-American actress; that would be Diana Sands (best known for portraying the sister of Sydney Poitier’s character in A Raisin in the Sun) in 1968. The best-known Broadway Joans were Katharine Cornell, Uta Hagen, Lynn Redgrave. Ann Reinking even portrayed Joan of Arc in the 1975 musical “Goodtime Charley.” Rashad plays Joan’s innocence, unfussy confidence, and sincere faith with a low-key modesty that would in real life surely win over those around her. But it simply isn’t all that interesting to watch, until the climactic moment of her sentencing.
In the fanciful epilogue, by far the most inventively staged scene in the production, a half dozen of the characters, most of them now dead, literally get into bed with one another. We learn from them that The Church reversed its verdict 25 years after her execution, and, via a top-hated messenger who looks suspiciously like Shaw, we are also told the Church eventually canonized Joan as a saint in 1920. Shaw wrote his play about her just three years after that, the latest in a long line of writers to depict her, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, and Mark Twain. It’s not clear why Manhattan Theatre Club and Daniel Sullivan thought this was the right time to resurrect her once again
Samuel J Friedman Theatre
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Director Daniel Sullivan
Set Designer Scott Pask, Costume Designer Jane Greenwood, Lighting Designer Justin Townsend, Sound Designer Obadiah Eaves, Projection Designer Christopher Ash, Original Music Bill Frisell
Cast: Condola Rashad as Joan, Walter Bobbie as Cauchon, Adam Chanler-Berat as Dauphin, Jack Davenport as Warwick, John Glover as Archbishop and Gentleman, Patrick Page as Inquisitor and Baudricourt, Daniel Sunjata as Dunois, Maurice Jones as Courcelles and Page to Dunois, Russel G. Jones as Tremouille and Page to Warwick, Max Gordon Moore as Bluebeard and Ladvenu, Matthew Saldivar as D’Estivet and Polly, Robert Stanton as Chaplain and English Soldier, Lou Sumrall as as La Hire and Executioner.
Running time: Three hours, including an intermission
Tickets: $65 – $150
Saint Joan is scheduled to run through June 10, 2018