‘Bedlam’s Saint Joan’: An army of four shines
CAMBRIDGE — “Bedlam’s Saint Joan” is a very appropriate name for the production now being presented at the Central Square Theatre under the sponsorship of the Underground Railway Theatre.
When you think of what could happen if you tried to perform the George Bernard Shaw classic with 24 characters played by just four actors and it didn’t go well, it could indeed be bedlam on stage.
The good news is that it works, and works spectacularly well — not only as a theatrical piece, but as a primer on the history of the events around the woman who became both a historical and religious icon, and as a commentary on social justice and the corruptness of the political and religious institutions of the 15th Century
The Bedlam troupe came to the fore in 2012, founded by Andrus Nichols, who plays Joan in this production, and Eric Tucker, who directs here and plays a variety of roles. They have performed minimalist takes on other pieces to great critical success.
This “Saint Joan” is stripped of anything that could distract you, such as sumptuous costumes or sets; instead, your entire focus is and must be on the actors. Nichols is luminous as Joan, the 17-year-old “Maid of Orleans” and fearless warrior who while expressing piety and love of God, also hears the voice not only of God but of St. Katherine and St. Margaret.
The clergy — including the Catholic prelates who at first supported her — were wary of her following and considered her a threat to their role as the interpreters of Christ’s message on earth, and eventually branded her a heretic.
Not the least of her sins was her appearance, dressing like a man and failing to live up to the image of what a good Christian woman of the time ought to look like and sound like.
“I will not be thought of as a woman,” she bellows at one point.
The house lights stay on the entire production and it all requires a lot of focus by the audience , because the actors will at times be changing roles literally line by line, with an arched eyebrow or facial expression or a whippet-quick change of a piece of clothing the clue to the transition.
Full disclosure: There were times when I momentarily lost the narrative thread because I couldn’t quite keep up with the blink-and-you-miss-it transitions. But in the most dramatic and important scenes, it is easy to track the characters.
This is a production that tugs at the heartstrings in several different ways. Despite the ultimate, tragic and harrowing fate of Joan, much of the piece is surprisingly funny, and especially so in the depiction of the behind-the scenes machinations and negotiations over how the existing power structures reacted to her feats.
Tucker as the Earl of Warwick steals several scenes as he works to preserve the feudal structure in peace at the time. pulling the strings as he ransoms Joan from her captors and sets her up to be prosecuted; it was fun when he went off script as the audience reacted with laughter to a Latin blessing. “You speak Latin? Ah, Cambridge.”
One of Edmund Lewis’s best characterizations is as the affected Dauphin, who would later go on to become Charles VII., largely due to the military conquests that Joan spearheaded.
Tom O’Keefe is the face of several of the clergymen in the piece, including Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, who is thrown under the bus at a later point after the burning of Joan.
In the third act, Joan will undergo the torment of a formal inquisition, with her inquisitors unable — or perhaps determined not to — understand her.
In the epilogue, which takes place 25 years after her death, her name has been cleared, and the characters even get a chance to comment on what eventually happened centuries ahead in 1920: Joan’s canonization by the Catholic Church.
Be alert: If you are in a seat designated as a moving seat, be prepared to pick up and move at least once, possibly twice in the three act production with two intermissions. Some seats will shift to accommodate changes in the area of focus in the theater, and in the third act it will bring all closer during the inquisition of Joan.
In what has seemed an entire winter theater season of 90-minute productions, “Saint Joan” is a commitment. The production checked in at three hours, 15 minutes with the two intermissions at the press performance, but it is well worth the time — and the effort — to be entranced by a troupe that both relies and depends on your imagination to take you where the actors want you to go.
The Underground Railway Theatre presentation of Bedlam’s “Saint Joan,” by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eric Tucker. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. At the Central Square Theater through Feb. 8. http://www.CentralSquareTheatre.org