By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA – In this reviewer’s opinion, George Bernard Shaw would have heartily approved the New York City-based Bedlam Theater’s rip-roaring presentation of “Saint Joan” at Central Square Theater.
In a largely bare venue, a ‘mere’ four actors performing the usual 24 roles of Shaw’s play, proclaim, declaim, browbeat, instruct, seduce and confront the reigning powers of 15th century Europe as well as their would-be challengers.
An ever-ready farm girl/general, Joan, savvy and intuition to the fore, God and St. Catherine and St. Margaret, et al, at her back, gains first a hearing with the powers-that-be in France, then carte-blanche with their quarter-masters who armor and horse her and deck her out with the blazons and insignia of the emerging nation-state of France.
Rough soldiers tiptoe around this former farmer’s daughter in the barracks, their usual blasphemous speech sticking in their throats as they follow her to lightning victories. A bottomless faith in God and country surprisingly allied with a thorough knowledge of human nature, including her own, upsets the English juggernaut at every twist and turn, threatening to free France of pretentious interlopers to realize her foreordained destiny as a nation among nations.
Whoa! Saint Joan is so far ahead of her time that only G. B. S., in 1923, and graces to his enduring words, we, are dramatically present as anachronism after anachronism entraps Joan’s stalwart limbs and thrusting spirit.
The Catholic church’s priests and bishops argue quite cogently that if every man and woman were to interpret God’s will in his or her own way, what, in heaven’s name, would happen to their Holy Hierarchy?
The earls and barons and dukes of the feudal system are themselves entangled in a web of allegiances that supersedes all this new-fangled talk of ‘nationhood.’ They are, make no mistake, noble gents before they are ‘Frenchmen’ and ‘Englishmen!’
And the monarchy, desperate in the person of the hapless dauphin of France, is glad for the help, but sees no contradiction — after the hurt is over — in quickly realizing and proclaiming who wears the (heavily mortgaged) pants!
One might be tempted, at points, to proclaim with Shakespeare “Words…words…. words!” but at other times, more significant for me, one realizes that few, if any, intellectuals could compass G.B.S.’ feat of compressing whole textbooks into a bishop’s ringing declamation or into a feudal lord’s counter-declamation – at least a lengthy chapter on the inextricable ties of fealty in the middle ages.
Saint Joan, interpreted as a lonely individual forging her own and her nation’s destiny, rings to modern ears as a proto-existentialist hero. Perhaps her church, hearing just those echoes, elevated Joan just a few short years before Shaw penned his play to a safe and sanctified saint-hood.
And yet, no one, in this dramatic realization of an enigma in history, a quandary of interpretation, has the very last word. Joan in her sainted glory and we, tucked securely into our theater seats, hear the arguments of theologians that chaos will surely follow when everyman writes his own bible. Likewise do we hear the pleas of earth’s ‘true nobility’ not to turn over our fealty and destiny to the squalid machinations of politicians and vote seekers.
Saints and sinners tumble out the door with us from Bedlam’s and G. B. Shaw’s “St. Joan” and onto the sidewalks of a throbbing Central Square still debating ‘what is what’ and, just as vigorously, who is whom!
(Bedlam’s “Saint Joan’s” runs through February 9 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, Mass. For more information or to buy tickets, call (617) 576-9278 ext. 1 or visit centralsquaretheater.org.)