Joan of Arc (known as the Maid of Orleans) is believed to have inspired more works of art than any other woman in history. There are films by Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson, plays by Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht and operas by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Giuseppe Verdi, among others.
Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting “Saint Joan,” written by George Bernard Shaw and first produced in 1923. Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan as a saint only three years earlier.
The title role is performed by the remarkable Condola Rashad in an impressive production directed by Dan Sullivan.
Of course, the historical Joan of Arc was rather remarkable herself. An illiterate teenage girl in the 15th century, she claimed to hear and see angels, who urged her to lead the French army against the British invaders. Rashad captures Joan’s certainty about her visions and her ability to convince others to follow her.
The teenager, like many of those today who stand up against the gun lobby, exerted a moral force, which only goes so far. (It remains to be seen whether the student walkouts and other protests lead to legislative change.) The Earl of Warwick (Jack Davenport), who is as close to a villain as anyone in the play, predicts early on that the girl will be betrayed for money by one of her countrymen.
Shaw incorporated some of the trial transcript into his text. As Rashad plays her, Joan is a visionary and a French nationalist. Whether or not her visions were from angels or psychotic delusions, she believed them. Also, her answers to her interlocutors at her trial show she was quite clever. Unfortunately, it was not enough to save her since she didn’t have anything approaching due process. Of course, the play reflects Shaw’s wit at various points, but the original Joan also had verbal acuity.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. The mellifluous voiced Patrick Page is Robert de Baudricourt, who is convinced to allow the peasant girl to go on as an inspiration to the troops and later is a somewhat sympathetic Inquisitor. The always excellent John Glover is the archbishop and in the epilogue a man from the future. Adam Chandler-Berat is the weak Dauphin, who benefits from Joan but does nothing to obtain her release after she is captured. The charismatic Daniel Sunjata is the stalwart Dunois.
The big surprise is Walter Bobbie as the conflicted Bishop of Beauvais, Cauchon. Bobbie is well known as a director (notably the hit “Chicago”), and hadn’t appeared as an actor in over 20 years. Like Joe Mantello, he is equally at home on stage as he is as a director.
Credit also goes to Scott Park, who designed the pipe organ set, Justin Townsend for the atmospheric lighting and, another unexpected treat, music by jazz guitarist extraordinaire Bill Frisell.
Most of all though, you leave grateful to have experienced Condola Rashad (always compelling and, so far, always in a different kind of role). Think of “Ruined,” “Stick Fly” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2. This role marks the young actress’s fourth Tony nomination.
“Saint Joan” is running until June 10 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street; http://saintjoanbroadway.com).
Photo Credit: Matthew Priestley
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