Saints and States
For classical theater at its best and a performance for the ages, don’t miss Valerie Westgate as Joan of Arc in 2nd Story’s magnificent production of "Saint Joan."by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
Before I tell you what an avid, thoughtful, and entertaining 2nd Story Theatre’s production of “Saint Joan” is, I have to admit that I have a natural predilection for the work of G.B. Shaw. According to my grandmother, Shaw is a relative of ours. So I can find no better explanation for my own compulsion to write plays — the vast majority of which are based on liberal social ideas — than that I have of a bit of the Irish story-telling gene in my DNA. And then too for reasons just as inexplicable, like Shaw I am a theater critic. So, here goes.
Joan of Arc (Valerie Westgate) is arguably one of the most influential women in all of Christendom and certainly one of the most fascinating characters to come down the theatrical pike in the 20th century. Not only was she a passionate and charismatic leader of French soldiers, she was as well a nationalist, a free-thinker, and a championship of the common people, all characteristics that did little to endear her to the church hierarchy and the landed gentry in England and on the continent.
There is really no logical explanation for the tremendous influence a simple peasant from the French countryside exerted on the social, religious, and political landscape of the 15th century. Joan argues that her vision and inspiration are divinely inspired. True or not (who’s to say?), it is what makes her story so utterly compelling, not only to the French citizenry of the time, but to Irish playwrights and American filmmakers hundreds of years later.
Shaw’s “Saint Joan” has a cast of 20 — 19 men and Joan. It is no accident that Shaw didn’t include any other female voices in Joan’s saga; she is alone, a voice crying out in the wilderness of a male-dominated religious and political landscape. Whether or not her inspiration comes from God through the voices and visions of the saints that preceded her or from somewhere else is irrelevant. Joan knows that the world doesn’t work right, and she makes it her mission to change things by becoming a leader, an inspiration to the oppressed, and consequently a threat to the social order established by the church and state.
Westgate’s Joan dominates the stage and the men who inhabit it like the original Joan must have dwarfed her accusers and oppressors in the 15th century. Westgate’s iridescent passion and commitment to Joan’s character ignites the stage, transcending time and space. Whether inspiring soldiers in the French countryside or refusing to compromise her principles during her inquisition, Westgate’s performance is phenomenal, almost making you want to leave your seat to follow her, to save her from the destiny to follow. Her performance is almost otherworldly; she is neither male nor female; she is ethereal, without a hint of sexuality about her, a leader to be followed, indeed a saint.
Shaw, never at a loss for words, uses the English language to express not only ideas in his plays, but in the case of “Saint Joan,” an entire ideology through his characterization of Joan. In this way Joan has much in common with Shaw’s Major Barbara and Eliza Doolittle. All three are strong women with a social agenda to bring some measure of relief to the oppressed at any cost to themselves; they are the embodiment of humanitarians, reflecting Shaw’s liberal politics through compelling characters. Not many playwrights have the knack for making a political thesis this entertaining. Such is the genius of Shaw.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the 19 men in the cast are little more than window dressing; far from it, their performances are exceptional. Standouts include but are not limited to F. William Oakes, Jim Sullivan, Ara Boghigian, Rico Lanni, Jeff Church, Ed Shea, Kevin Broccoli and Nathanael Lee.
Trevor Elliott’s set is neither beautiful nor elaborate, but if “form follows function” as Louis Sullivan contends, then it is ideal. The cold, hard vertical columns dominating the stage are as immovable and dispassionate as the church hierarchy they symbolize. Whether serving as a backdrop for a farm, a king’s court, a battlefield, or a prison, the columns stand tall and erect, seemingly scoffing at the insignificant human activity taking place all around them. Humans come and go; the institutions remain.
For classical theater at its best and a performance for the ages, don’t miss Valerie Westgate as Joan of Arc in 2nd Story’s magnificent production of “Saint Joan.”