Fine 'Saint Joan' bears witness to Shaw Theater review

November 01, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

To George Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc was an intensely human saint -- a courageous, conscience-driven young woman who happened to hear voices.

For Shaw, those voices weren't necessarily supernatural or spiritual. More likely, they were manifestations of Joan's imagination and intellect. Or, as she herself puts it in Shaw's "Saint Joan," "echoes of my own common sense." The play Shaw created about this 15th-century saint is less a debate on the nature of faith than on the nature of -- and reaction to -- genius.

At Theatre Hopkins, lead actress Gina S. Braden conveys the glowing self-assurance and innate wisdom that make Joan such a compelling character. And, though the rest of director Suzanne Pratt's uneven cast is not always up to Braden's level, her performance and those of a few fellow actors are enough to sustain interest in a work that, at times, plays like a historical chronicle instead of one of Shaw's typical comedies of ideas.

Although both church and state found Joan an impediment, in "Saint Joan," her toughest opponents are men of the cloth, and Shaw -- never one to simplify a debate -- made them worthy and complex adversaries. The best example at Theatre Hopkins is Ralph Piersanti's Inquisitor. Piersanti's portrayal is soft-spoken -- choice all the more insidious for not being overtly threatening.

This seemingly modest Inquisitor contrasts effectively with J.R. Lyston's imposing Bishop of Beauvais, whose distance from Joan is reflected in the difference between her stark soldier's garb and his gold-encrusted robes. Lyston, who displays a fine command of Shaw's taxing language, is as stuffy and unbending as Braden's Joan is fresh and uninhibited. Joan does have one clerical ally, Brother Martin, and Graham Yearley exudes goodness as this sympathetic, gentle soul.

In at least one instance, Pratt uses multiple casting to interesting effect. Adept actor Josh Shoemaker plays both Joan's first patron, Robert de Beaudricourt, and later, the Earl of Warwick, one of her direst foes. Also worthy of note is John McDanolds' depiction of Dunois, a military commander whose respect for Joan on the battlefield creates a soldierly chemistry between them.

The play's purest Shavian element is its epilogue, which some productions ill-advisedly excise. It's by far the most successful scene here. Shaw thought up this scene years before the rest of the play, and if the action occasionally bogs down in Theatre Hopkins' early scenes, it's worth the wait for this sparkling wrap-up.

A dream sequence set in the bedroom of Charles VII (Bill Kamberger as the petulant, reluctant monarch), the epilogue introduces a 20th-century character and some levity -- no simple task for a play about a woman burned at the stake. Much of the levity springs from the ghost of the English soldier who gave the dying Joan two sticks tied together in the form of a cross. Bruce Levy makes nimble work of this common man, whose humble roots are not unlike Joan's.

"If you could bring her back to life, they would burn her again," Charles says in the epilogue. That, essentially, is Shaw's thesis. We don't recognize the saints among us. At best, we fear and shun them. At worst, we destroy them. Theatre Hopkins' production may not always be smooth -- despite Braden's impressive work -- but it does get Shaw's point across.

'Saint Joan'

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2: 15 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 23

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: 410-516-7159

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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