Bailiwick Repertory


Bailiwick Repertory

As George Bernard Shaw makes absolutely clear in an introduction of more than 50 pages, Saint Joan is a work brimming with ideas–about the Inquisition, penal reform, Joan of Arc’s place in history, the eternal battle between clever individuals and entrenched bureaucracies. What the play lacks is a heart. And without a heart there can be no drama.

In scene after scene we see Joan confront intractable authority figures–Captain de Baudricourt, the archbishop of Rheims, the dauphin–and either win them over or not. But until she’s put on trial for blasphemy in the last third of the play, these scenes do little more than illustrate the high points in her public life: the requisite three miracles, the coronation of Charles VII at Rheims, her capture by enemy forces. Joan speaks of hearing the voices of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael, but we never see her in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. Nor do we hear these voices.

It’s as if Shaw, writing only a few years after Joan of Arc’s canonization in 1920, became so obsessed with getting the facts of her case right that he forgot to form them into an interesting story. No wonder Kenneth Tynan called Saint Joan “the first of his plays into which senility creeps.”

This may explain the master-thespian hysteria that pervades the first half of Roger Smart’s production. Given nothing inherently dramatic to perform, his actors seem to feel they must turn every line into a dramatic moment. Hence the wild overacting by Larry Bull at the play’s start, when his character is upset that his chickens aren’t laying. “No eggs?” he bellows so loud I’m sure they can hear him in the theater next door.

Bull is not alone. Leo Hermon plays the archbishop of Rheims as if he were the bastard child of Nero and Snidely Whiplash, which confuses the story considerably since the archbishop never conspires against Joan and isn’t part of the Inquisition that condemns her. Joel Sanchez’s take on Joan’s bodyguard, Gilles de Rais, is so arch and his fake beard so laughable he looks like the camped-up arch villain King Tut on the old Batman TV series.

In fact, of all the actors who appear in the first half of Saint Joan, only Keli Garret seems to know how not to overplay her role. If anything, her Joan seems a touch too quiet, polite, and deferential to pass for the strong-willed, divinely inspired peasant girl in soldier’s clothing, though her consistent underplaying contrasts nicely with the blustering authority figures she’s surrounded by and wins her a great deal of sympathy.

It’s probably no coincidence that the most enjoyable performances come during her trial, when Shaw finally found a story to tell. The trial is presided over by two seasoned performers: Chris Farrell as the infamous Peter Cauchon and Ben Werling as the Inquisitor himself, Brother John Le Maitre. In lesser hands these roles could easily degenerate into hateful cliches, though in his introduction Shaw argues that Cauchon and the Inquisitor were incredibly fair men who went to great lengths to avoid condemning Joan to death. Farrell and Werling play these villains as the epitome of even-tempered, justice-seeking men of the church. It can’t hurt that Farrell, who also sings folk music, and Werling, who played the smooth-talking Barry Champlain in Talk Radio last season, have such control over their mellifluous voices they could make an order for toast sound dramatic.

These two don’t save the play by themselves. They have considerable help from Andrew Turner, Jerry Baggot, James Serpento, and Michael Quaintance, all of whom are quite adept at revealing the humor and depth of Shaw’s work. Even Garret’s Joan seems bolder, stronger, and more heroic during the trial. It’s a pity Shaw wasn’t able to make his whole play as moving and intellectually stimulating as these final few scenes.

Bertolt Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards may have been inspired by Shaw’s play–Brecht is reported to have attended rehearsals when it was produced in Berlin in October 1924. But Brecht’s play owes as much to Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle, and to Frank Norris’s less lurid exploration of the commodity exchange, The Pit.

Set in Chicago, this muddled reworking of the Brecht-Weill flop musical Happy End concerns a manipulative businessman named Mauler who runs afoul of a do-gooder named Joan Dark and ultimately loses both the world and his soul. Brecht’s rhetorical intent is clear early on–he wants to skewer both capitalists and well-meaning charities–but his play is at once painfully obvious (all the businessmen dress and act like gangsters) and annoyingly obtuse (we’re never sure whether Dark is a saint, a fool, or a willing dupe of the capitalist system).

Brecht loses credibility by overstating his argument about the monopolistic machinations of business–Mauler corners both the livestock market and the market for canned beef–and by failing to research American geography: at one point Mauler claims to have purchased all the beef in the U.S. “from Chicago to Missouri.”

Director David Zak does an admirable job trying to make the thing work. He has gathered a terrific cast, led by Susan Thompson, who makes Joan a likable cipher, and Matt McDonald (ethics alert–he’s a friend of mine), who manages to turn the paper-thin Mauler into a human being. Zak directs them through a production chock-full of beautiful stage pictures, such as the moment when three angels in white appear on the second level of Robert Knuth’s inspired two-tiered set.

Unfortunately, a strong cast and impressive tableaux can’t save this wreck. Nor can Christopher Moore’s original music, which acts as an occasional welcome jolt. If Shaw’s Saint Joan is missing a heart, Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards is missing a brain.