There are multiple signs that the Saint Joan going on now at Folger respects its audience. There are the jumbo runtime and the two intermissions that come with it — most shows would significantly pare the script or reorganize it with a single break — or both. Even more importantly, there’s the presentation: The play, directed by Eric Tucker, is served up straight.
There is no music, and the lights are (with a few notable exceptions) largely static; get used to seeing your neighbor. The modern-dress costumes are simple, even boring. The set would more accurately be described as trappings: a desk here, a hanging sheet there. Tucker trusts his audience to pay attention to the performances and dialogue without any attention-grabbing, flash-bang accoutrements.
And so he should. The theatre company Bedlam has been performing its “stripped-down” four-actor version of George Bernard Shaw’s classic for about six years now, so they know their way around a pyre. The show is funny, touching, and, despite the weighty subject matter, nearly pretension-free. (Why nearly? I blame Shaw’s epilogue, the theological equivalent of a stale after-dinner mint.) Dria Brown is utterly committed as the headstrong Joan of Arc, and the three men who play everyone else look like they’re having a blast with their multiple roles. It’s a hilarious tragedy — or a doomed comedy.
How weird is it for Bernard Shaw, an obsessively language-obsessed writer, to be telling a tale of war and nasty executions? Well, this is a very talky play, all of the battle and burning is banished offstage. It’s a series of conversations that bring Joan from her rural beginnings, hearing the voice(s) of God call her to action, to the presence of the dauphin and eventual king — and beyond. Really, really good conversations.
A strange side effect of the quartet-sized ensemble is that Brown, who plays Joan D’Arc as neither crazy nor messianic, sometimes feels like she has the least amount of stage time while the gents stack up French and British nobility and clergy. Edmund Lewis, Sam Massaro, and particularly Tucker himself all do a great job distinguishing their parts and filling each with passion. And as the saint in waiting, Brown is part open wound, part immovable object. All four actors shine the pivotal Act 2 scene where Joan learns God is her only truly ally.
One complaint: The device of having some of the audience up on stage, Globe-style, is more trouble that it’s worth. The cast is nimble about working around them, but moving the chairs toward the end of the Act 3 is time-consuming, and the crowd’s presence makes it impossible to employ black-outs. A worthy idea, but let’s keep the house in the house this time.
Still, that’s a quibble. This Saint Joan, going on now until June 10, feels more important than how it’s staged. You may not leave believing in God, but you will definitely gain faith in Joan of Arc.
Feature photo The Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) leads the accused Joan (Dria Brown) to her seat to stand trial in Bedlam’s Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.