Olney Theatre Center Saint JoanBy Bob Ashby • Sep 20th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Olney Theatre Center: (Info) (Web)
Olney – Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney, MD
Through October 20th
2:45, with two intermissions
$31-$64 (Discounts available)
Reviewed September 15th, 2013
Many years ago, when I saw Cats for the first and only time, I remarked to my companion at the performance that while the stagecraft was fabulous, my idea of a great show was one that would knock my socks off played on a bare stage in street clothes. I saw such a show Sunday night. The Bedlam company, a four-person troupe from New York, presented a breathtaking version of Shaw’s Saint Joan at Olney Theatre’s black box. In repertory with Hamlet, Saint Joan runs through the end of October. If you value absolutely stunning, absorbing theater, do not miss the opportunity to see it.
The four actors — Andrus Nichols, who played Joan; and Ted Lewis, Tom O’Keefe, and Eric Tucker (also the director), who played everybody else — do the show on a bare stage, with only a few chairs, a table, and work lights as props. They wear street clothes for the most part — occasional headgear included motorcycle helmets and New York Giants and New York Yankees hats. Sometimes an actor would don a cape or glasses to denote a change from one character to another. The acting is so consistently fine that even these audience aids were hardly necessary. The cast delineates characters so clearly that there is no doubt who we are seeing and hearing at a particular time, even in a few scenes when the same character is traded back and forth between different actors. Above all, there is a sharp focus on the sound and meaning of Shaw’s words, brought brilliantly alive.
Shaw is often thought of a playwright who emphasizes wit, cleverness, intellectual repartee, playing with ideas, etc., sometimes to the detriment of creating fully realized emotional lives for his characters. There’s plenty of wit in Saint Joan (“God is on the side of the big battalions,” “[Miracles] may seem very wonderful to the people who witness them, and very simple to those who perform them”), but what makes this one of Shaw’s strongest plays is the deep passion of many of its characters.
Joan herself is almost wholly a creature of passion: other characters comment that she is a little in love with religion and war; she loves the idea of an as-yet unrealized French nation; she loves life itself, in all its details; she believes unquestioningly in the rightness of her cause. There is no intellectual mediation between her feelings and her decisions, no moment of second thoughts until almost her very end. Because of the purity, intensity, and certainty of her convictions and the force of her personality, she is almost the ideal type of Max Weber’s concept of the charismatic leader. Nichols makes the directness of the connection between Joan’s passions and her actions vibrantly clear. As other characters say of Joan, “there is something about the girl.” And there is equally something about Nichols’ portrayal.
Passion runs through many of the other key characters as well. Cauchon (O’Keefe) is wholeheartedly committed both to the Church and to justice, as he sees it. Warwick (Tucker) has a colder, Machiavellian passion to serve his country’s interests. DeStogumber (Lewis) has a blind hatred of anything not English. Dunois (Tucker) has an unshakeable commitment to pursuing military action the right way, even when at a terrible cost. Other memorable characterizations include the timorous Dauphin (Lewis) and the small role of an English soldier who did a kindness for Joan as she was about to be burned (O’Keefe). There are no uninteresting characterizations.
The company makes excellent use of what is, by black box standards, a generous playing space. While the group explicitly emphasizes words and storytelling, this is no radio play. There is very active, well-planned use of the entire space (including some areas outside the theater walls), and, when appropriate, rapidly paced movement. The last two scenes employ particularly striking staging. For Joan’s trial, she is seated alone on stage on a chair, brightly illuminated by two work lights placed on the floor. The other characters are out of sight, in the dark, firing questions from varied, ever-changing angles, evoking the terror of a suspect being interrogated by shadowy inquisitors as they press her to recant her heresies. Rouen as Guantanamo, perhaps (the epilogue also has fascinating similarities to the trial scene in The Crucible). In the epilogue, the actors are seated in the three seating sections, delivering their lines from amongst the spectators, drawing the audience into the play in a most direct way.
As one might expect for a show performed in this way, there is not a heavy technical component. A stagehand carries a couple cassette recorders to and fro for scene change music; place names appear on the walls opposite the center seating section. Before the show, the sound of distant church bells greets the audience, reflecting Joan’s love of their sound. The lighting is unobtrusively effective. But it is the actors who create the world of Saint Joan, and they do it magnificently. The play’s the thing, and what a thing they make of it.
- Eric Tucker (Dunois, Warwick, etc.)
- Andrus Nichols (Joan)
- Tom O’Keefe (Cauchon, Bluebeard, etc.)
- Ted Lewis (Dauphin, DeStogumber, etc.)
- Director and Bedlam Artistic Director: Eric Tucker
- Bedlam Producing Director: Andrus Nichols
- Stage Manager: Elizabeth A. Ribar
- Lighting Design: Marc Hurst
- Fight Coordinator: Trampis Thompson
Disclaimer: Olney Theatre Center provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9756.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.