Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Saint Joan on Broadway

Last weekend, I saw Condola Rashad as the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan on Broadway. And yes, this Manhattan Theatre Club production definitely highlights the star power of Rashad, whose face adorns playbills, advertisements, and the theatre's marquee.

That doesn't mean that the supporting cast is anything to sniff at, though. This is one of the best ensemble casts you'll see doing a Shaw play. The show opens with Patrick Page as the irrepressible Robert de Baudricourt. Page is probably best known for his turn as the lord of the dead in the off-Broadway musical Hadestown. It should come as no surprise, then, when he returns in the second act as the chilling Inquisitor and dominates Joan's trial scene.

John Glover similarly dominates the second scene of the play as the Archbishop of Rheims, one of several advisors who bullies about the young Dauphin. Adam Chanler-Berat (the original Peter in Peter and the Starcatcher) plays the Dauphin with a goofy but lovable immaturity. Joan's miraculous picking out of the blood royal in a room full of nobles is hardly miraculous, given how much Chanler-Berat's Dauphin sticks out from the rest of the crowd, but as the Archbishop says, a miracle is simply an event which creates faith.

Daniel Sunjata shines as Dunois in the third scene, when the wind miraculously changes direction after Joan's arrival. The wind effect was achieved with projections across the set, which resembled a set of massive chimes hanging from the fly space of the theatre. Set designer Scott Pask (who also designed the sets for Something Rotten) managed to create an evocative abstract set that still conjured up the feel of the middle ages without looking explicitly medieval. Costume designer Jane Greenwood, on the other hand, strove to create period costumes, which I appreciated, as other productions I've seen of Saint Joan have all been in modern dress.

The fourth scene of the play came right before intermission, which was also the case with the production I saw last summer at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Though the scene is essentially just a conversation between the Earl of Warwick (played here by Jack Davenport) and Cauchon (Broadway director Walter Bobbie returning to acting for the role), it can produce fireworks when you have two great performers. That was the case here, where the characters' anachronistic discussion of Protest-ant-ism and Nation-al-ism drew howls of laughter from the audience.

In the scene that follows the Dauphin's coronation as King of France, a bitter pessimism set in, preparing the audience for the most famous scene in the play, Joan's trial. In Dark Night of the Soul, my own treatment of the Joan of Arc story, the trial takes up the entirety of the play, and Shaw understood that this must be the crux of any drama about the Maid. It is here that the actor playing Joan really has a chance to showcase her talent.

And what about Rashad, whose face adorns all of the publicity for the show? She's a rather unconventional Joan. Gone is the young innocence we typically associate with Joan, as Rashad gives us a much more cunning saint. In the first scene, as she fingers a chair in Baudricourt's quarters, we almost think she might be mad, but as Baudricourt's perception of her changes, so does ours. This is a woman who knows what she's doing and has no illusions about the dangers she is facing.

Rashad also isn't afraid to show the weakness of her character. She is battered down by the trial scene, and seems defeated when she declares that "only a fool will walk into a fire." Her freedom is more important to her than her life, though, and her embrace of martyrdom is paradoxically life-affirming in this production.

Director Daniel Sullivan also opts to keep the play's epilogue, which is perhaps the highlight of the show. It's delightful to see all the characters from the play scoot their way into the bedchamber of the sleeping king. When Glover returns, this time as a gentleman from the 1920s, his incongruous clothing makes an excellent contrast with the rest of the cast in their medieval garb, a joke of Shaw's that is lost in modern-dress productions.

Broadway's revival of Saint Joan, aided by Rashad's star power, will help to introduce a lot of playgoers to Shaw who might not generally see his work. Though this version is not as innovative as Bedlam's production of the play a few years ago, it does competently showcase Shaw's writing and will hopefully renew interest in Joan of Arc as we approach the 100th anniversary of her canonization.