Off-Broadway Theater Review: SAINT JOAN (Bedlam Theatre Company at Access Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on March 18, 2013

in Theater-New York


Even with all its flaws Bedlam’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece Saint Joan is an immersive and ultimately gratifying theatrical experience. Under Erick Tucker’s breathless direction the three-hour play, which tells the story of the last two years or so of Joan of Arc’s life, whizzes by, with the minimalism of the production creating a remarkable sense of immediacy and intimacy. In fact, so Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Bedlam's "Saint Joan."strongly does it play up its “ragtag” elements that one wonders if perhaps this show isn’t really about something other than the story of Joan of Arc as envisioned by Shaw, and that maybe the substance of the play is almost incidental to the experience that the Bedlam Theatre Company is trying to create.

The first act (Scenes I through III in Shaw’s play) is staged in a small black box theater, with the audience in its seats and the actors before it on the stage. The scenery is limited to two chairs, one with “France” written on it, a motorcycle helmet, an old tape recorder, and a framed early Renaissance painting, which hangs crooked on strings from the ceiling. It’s as if the goal here isn’t so much to get us to suspend our disbelief as it is to say: You are our guests and now we’re going to perform for you a play about Joan of Arc, so just pretend like this is 15th century France and enjoy.

Unfortunately, the first act is directed as though it were some sort of farce, with lots of yelling and silly running around. The performances feel forced, more like play-acting than acting. There is, perhaps, an absurdist line being developed here, but it never quite comes to fruition. And although it is not without some entertainment Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Bedlam's "Saint Joan."value, frankly, were it not my job to sit through the entire play, I likely would have left at intermission. I’m glad I stayed however, because it is in the second act that the show takes off.

The first scene of Act II (Scene IV in Shaw’s play) is performed not in the house but in the cramped little vestibule, which is like a small, L-shaped living room, furnished with a couch and some chairs (there are three subsequent performance space changes after this one). We are told by one of the actors to make ourselves comfortable on the floor if we can’t find a seat and then, without bothering to shut the door leading out to the stairwell, the performers resumes.

Here Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker unleash some serious acting power. Their performances finally feel grounded and robust, and the show goes from a half-amusing curiosity to serious and compelling theater. This four-actor production is a rigorous challenge for the three male actors, who play all the parts except Joan’s. Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Bedlam's "Saint Joan."This comes to over twenty roles in all, and occasionally performers actually find themselves playing two characters who are having a conversation with one another – a trick exceptionally difficult to pull off without unintentionally turning it into the courtroom scene from Bananas.

Misters O’Keefe, Lewis and Tucker manage well for the most part. As certain characters they shine brilliantly – Mr. Tucker as Warwick, Mr. O’Keefe as Cauchon, Mr. Lewis as the chaplain – as some others a little less so. A few of the roles, especially some of the bit parts, are a tad underdone. On the one hand these less than excellent characterizations feel like flaws. But on the other, these and other somewhat “sloppy” elements are part of what make this show feel so cozy and inclusive; it’s as if the actors are your friends who have invited you over and are performing for you. In this way the troop seduces you with their theater – a worthwhile achievement.

It seems an actor must, to some degree, be possessed, or at least obsessed, to play Joan of Arc, a character with one foot in the real world and one in a mystical one. Andrus Nichols as Joan has a deft grip on that personage’s determination, frustration, anger, fear and courage, delivering a powerful performance full of Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Bedlam's "Saint Joan."sincere emotion. She manages quite well when her motivations and obstacles are real and concrete. But it is the mystical elements of Joan, those that set her apart from everyone else and give her supernatural presence, charisma and conviction, which Ms. Nichols has trouble with. There is an element of the holy fool to the Maid of Orleans, a sense that her world is much bigger and richer than the one we all live in. Unfortunately, little of that spiritual world comes across.

“Mystical” or “spiritual” is difficult to direct and difficult to play, especially, it seems, in American, where most drama is so grounded in the material. Yet it’s something essential to getting Shaw’s Joan right. Perhaps this mystical quality is something an actor either has access to or not. Maybe it can’t be directed or built with craft alone. Whatever the case, without it Joan does not feel quite complete.

This production has flaws. But in a sense these flaws serve to bring us deeper into it with their humanity, deeper not necessarily into the world of Shaw’s Saint Joan but into the world of these actors putting on a show in this theater, which seems to be a big part of what is intended. In a way the play itself is almost beside the point. It could have been Saint Joan, it could have been Hamlet (which these same four actors are currently staging in rotating repertory), or it could have been The Cat in the Hat. The point here seems to be not so much to create a specific world from a specific play, but rather to create a world of personal and entertaining theater. And at this task the Bedlam group triumphs.

photos by Michael Mallard

Saint Joan
Bedlam Theatre Company at Access Theatre
scheduled to end on April 7, 2013
for tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit

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