You might not picture a saint in blue jeans or a soldier in a ski hat, but then again, this isn’t your parents’ version of Saint Joan.
Inspired by the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan was originally performed in 1923. It was famously labeled “a tragedy without villains” as Shaw unfolded the political and theological motivations of those responsible for her horrific execution.
Using contemporary costumes, minimalist sets and an interacting audience, Stark Naked Theatre Company brings the innovative production from New York City’s Bedlam Theatre Company to Houston.
Joan, played by Samantha Steinmetz, is the central figure around which the other characters revolve, often literally as the actors use the entire space of the theater. The performers also say their lines from behind or under the audience’s seats—creating a similar effect to a theater in the round experience.
Although the first act has the audience in a traditional seating configuration, everyone is asked to move to a completely different space for the second act, with viewers sitting on benches and the floor as multiple characters discuss the fate of Joan behind her back. For the third act, the audience sits as though present at her trial, with Joan bathed in a circle of light as she realizes that the very people who used her visions for their own gain are literally throwing her to the fire, and ultimately, canonizing her a saint.
Bedlam collaborated with Start Naked Theatre Company in what co-artistic director Kim Tobin-Lehl describes as performances that are true and "emotionally naked."
"Our commitment is to small performance spaces that bring our audience into our performances and let you experience the play as a participant, not merely an observer,” Tobin-Lehl shared. “We make a concerted effort to eliminate the ‘fourth wall’ so that your theatrical experience is personal and involved rather than separate and detached.”
Saint Joan provides this kind of experience, and the result is a concentrated focus on the actors’ performances and Shaw’s use of language without the presence of more predictable period costumes and sets. As Tobin-Lehl explains, “Bedlam strips away anything to distract you from the story and then puts you directly in the jury box—you couldn’t be any closer.”
Director Eric Tucker, who was Wall Street Journal Director of the Year in 2014, manages to have only four actors in the entire production, with Spencer Aste, John Russell and Stephan Wolfert playing multiple roles ranging from French kings to English clergy to military leaders—all with aplomb. In fact, these three New York actors are the highlight of the play as they move with ease from role to role. Although it would have been helpful for the audience to have a list of the actors’ characters, their performances are differentiated enough to follow the politics of their agendas.
Casting Joan herself was tricky business—where can you find a young woman (Joan was 17 years old!) who has the emotional range to play a religious female leader who wants to wage war in order to promote the peace of Christ? It is a complicated part, and Steinmetz is at her best when adopting beatific looks that make her presence as a spiritual luminary believable. She should be commended for incorporating some of the mannerisms of a teenager with the seriousness of a zealot who is fighting for God and France.
She gets her way with the powers that be with a mixture of charm, persistence and a spiritual acumen that moves even the most skeptical around her. She even infuses comic relief into some of her statements, reminding the audience of her certainty that she will be protected by God regardless of whom she encounters, making her serious grief during the trial even more moving as you have to confront the severity of her punishment for her alleged crimes, in which cross-dressing seems to be held as much against her as claims of heresy. She gets a raw deal—and it is a raw production of a classic play that brings this point home.
Saint Joan is a lively performance with lots of yelling and physical drama, and a level of interaction with the audience that is both unusual and memorable. One person’s saint is another person’s political subversive, and Shaw’s research into her trial translated onto the stage. Bedlam and Stark Naked Theatre bring this historic heroine, as well as her enemies, to life. This contemporary treatment of a 15th-century figure reminds us that rebellion is never time-bound, and always extracts a price, even if there is a reward at the end. The trial itself is a lesson in the slipperiness of justice, and a timely reminder that the voices of commoners are threatening to the powers that be, no matter what century you live in.