Friday, November 21, 2008

Maid to order

Joan (Andrea Ross) is blessed by the Archbishop (James Bodge) in Saint Joan.

Stuart Little and Our Town fans must be doing quite the double take at the Wheelock Family Theatre this season: the current mainstage show is Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw, a lengthy late work that's long on dialectic and a little short on family fun.

But hey, I'm not complaining; Boston hasn't seen Saint Joan, I think, since a Huntington production some twenty years ago, and although the play isn't top-drawer Shaw, it still rocks a lot harder than, say, Rock 'n' Roll, the Huntington's latest offering. By some sad coincidence, all the really interesting plays so far this season have been at least twenty-five years old; what that says about our mania for "new work" I'll leave to my readers' imaginations. Suffice to say, three cheers for the Wheelock for resuscitating Saint Joan, and in such handsome form (the subtle, detailed set is by Anita Fuchs) - even if some artistic corners seem to have been cut for the sake of accessibility.

Not that the text seems particularly abridged - but as Joan, the Wheelock has cast the talented Andrea Ross, who's the right age, and with whom the Wheelock's audiences can easily identify, but who's nevertheless utterly wrong for the part. Ms. Ross is a pretty, healthy, modern teenager who's smart but prone to pout; Joan, on the other hand, was a gender-bending live wire whose history-changing charisma no doubt derived - as such power generally does - from unresolved psychological issues. Not only did she hear voices from the Great Beyond (as in my favorite painting of her, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, below), but she was both maniacal about her virginity and all but bent on dressing and acting like a man - in particular, like a warrior (which was far more transgressive in Orleans in 1428 than it is at Newton North today).

It's true that Shaw himself leaves these issues largely unexplored; as always, he's fascinated by feminine charisma without wanting to delve too closely into its sources (catch-all causes like "The Life Force" will suffice). But his larger social thesis - that saints are both necessary and impossible - nevertheless depends on an exciting but insufferable Joan, and it's hard to see how the likeable Ms. Ross could fill that bill. Productions generally rely on older, more experienced actresses to project the requisite intensity - Carl Dreyer's film, for instance (see clip below), which only a few years after Shaw's premiere would eclipse his play - depends in no small degree on the almost frightening commitment of its star, Maria Falconetti.

Dreyer's intense The Passion of Joan of Arc , with Maria Falconetti and Antonin Artaud (climax above).

On the other hand, could the Wheelock's audience relate to such a complex, unstable figure? Hard to say. But I was struck by how closely the kids over 11 or so followed this production - which was a good thing, because without a compelling Joan, a production must rely on the clever combat of Shaw's dialogue. Here the Wheelock actors generally did a solid, but not sparkling, job. Alas, a certain tendency to view congregations of dead white males as necessarily dark in the their intents diluted the moral complexity of the proceedings, and made Shaw's longest debate a bit wearying even for me. Still, several actors brought astonishing conviction to their roles. Shelley Bolman often charmed as the milquetoast Dauphin (the historical one was actually quite a bit less charming - here, as elsewhere in Saint Joan, Shaw re-purposes characters from his earlier hits rather than devising new ones). And there were appealing performances from De'Lon Grant and Gerard Slattery, as well as a detailed and confident - but perhaps too arch - one from Bill Mootos. The most memorable turn, however, came from Luis Negron, whose anguish at the realization that whatever his rationale, he had essentially burnt to death an innocent child, was utterly compelling. Negron's final scenes gave some sense of how powerful even minor Shaw can truly be.

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