By Philip Pearce
Surprisingly enough, Saint Joan was first produced not in England but in the United States. New York’s Theater Guild premiered the play in 1923, a few years after the Catholic Church had reversed its condemnation and execution of Joan of Arc for heresy and declared her a saint and a few years before Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Shaw was pretty contemptuous of earlier literary and theatrical Joans. Shakespeare had offered up a viciously anti-British witch and harlot; Schiller had created a sentimentalized Germanic heroine with no visible links to the historic Joan; and Mark Twain, in Shaw’s words, had turned out “an unimpeachable American school teacher in armor.” In rebutting these distortions Shaw wrote what critics and playgoers have agreed is a moving and ironic historic tragedy. His Joan is a guileless but direct and disruptive time bomb who shatters major social and political conventions of 15th century Europe in much the same way the iconoclastic G.B.S. was to explode them in the early 20th.
Jewel Theatre Company has just opened a strong, energetic, imaginatively staged version of the play. Taking your seat at Center Stage in Santa Cruz, you face a playing area marked off by a broken rectangle of knee-high wall and an upstage jigsaw of shelves and open closets housing props and costumes of the coming action. Outside the rectangle are chairs to be occupied from time to time by actors who have just exited or are waiting to enter. The single aisle also lights up to become a key entranceway, notably in the production’s opening moments. A cast of eight, who will play 22 roles, pass through the audience in slow liturgical procession, each to meet and be asperged with holy water by Gary Martinez as the Archbishop of Rheims. It’s an innovation by director Susan Myer Silton and designer Ron Gasparinetti which deals brilliantly with two challenges: it lays out and uses all the tiny theater’s available performing space; and it immediately surrounds a modern secular audience with sounds and images, spiritual and political, of 15th century Europe.
All of this is bathed in Gregorian chant, which, sequence by sequence, becomes part of John and Diana Koss’s imaginative musical score that includes contemporary Gospel and Country Western Faith songs in a way that underlines Shaw’s image of Joan as a saint for all seasons.
We’re off to a good start.
As Joan, Elisa Noemi is lithe and touching, powerful and coherent enough to convince us she could muster an army and overturn the English siege of Orleans but with an underlying vulnerability that keeps her from being just a strident brat. Like two other favorite Shaw heroines, Eliza Doolittle and Candida Morell, this is a bright and focused woman who confronts and outwits a surrounding circle of self-assured males.
Noemi and the adroit and resourceful Gary Martinez add some welcome shading and restraint to a company who are admirably clear in characterizing Joan’s assertive and frequently eccentric friends and foes but sometimes at the expense of emotional variety. If the evening has a fault it’s the tendency of these able male performers to play almost every scene in vigorous bursts of anger, an emotion easy to muster but sometimes hard to rein back in.
That may have been why I had trouble from time to time with Gabriel Ross’s maybe too strong performance as the Dauphin. He was just right in the final scene of the exonerated monarch’s prophetic nightmare, but in his earlier moments he seemed more direct and incisive than Shaw’s text justifies. Was he, I wondered, unconsciously echoing the surrounding chorus of full-throated irritation of other male actors?
Never mind. Whatever else they may be, Shaw’s characters always have a lot to say for themselves, and the noise and drive and energy of this cast at least delivers the show from any hint of the more painful Shavian threat of being prosy or long-winded.
It plays through September 28th.