Review: "Saint Joan" Displays Her Virtues in Lower Manhattan

Saint Joan

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Geoffrey Horne

Presented by Shakespeare Downtown at Castle Clinton

26 Wall St., Manhattan, NYC

June 16-26, 2022

Billie Andersson as Joan. Photo by Amy Goossens
George Bernard Shaw's 1923 drama Saint Joan, chronicling the exploits of the fifteenth-century Jeanne d'Arc during the Hundred Years' War, premiered (in New York City, as it happens) a few years after the eponymous Joan's canonization by the Catholic Church. Just shy of the play's 100th anniversary, NYC's Shakespeare Downtown theater company brings a revival to Battery Park's Castle Clinton. The production is presented free to the public, and tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at 5:45 pm on the day of each performance, which begins at 6:30 pm.
 
Saint Joan begins in 1429 with an argument between Captain Robert de Baudricourt (George Eve) and his steward (Davide di Cagno-Hagen) over a lack of eggs. The latter blames a curse linked to the "girl from Lorraine," also known as "The Maid," who has been trying unsuccessfully to meet with Robert and who wishes to be a soldier. When the seventeen (or so) year-old Joan (Billie Andersson) is granted her audience, the poised assurance with which Andersson invests her makes Eve's adult Robert seem bratty in comparison. She may not necessarily persuade Robert that the voices which she hears are indeed divine, but she does convince him to send her on to the Dauphin (Evan Olson) accompanied by gentleman-at-arms Bertrand de Poulengy (Malcolm Jackson) and her requested military accouterments. Despite meeting with a good deal of mockery at the court of the Dauphin, whom Olson plays as a comic figure, another childish man juxtaposed to Joan, she gets what she wants from him as well, helped, no doubt, by his enormous debts and disinclination towards soldiering. From there, she moves on to meeting Dunois, Bastard of Orleans (a standout Charlie Howard), some spectacular military victories, a trial for heresy, and…well, we won't spoil it for those who have never heard of Joan of Arc.

Saint Joan may not be a Shakespeare play (obviously), but it is reminiscent in some respects of a work like Henry IV, Parts I and II (including in a run-time of well over two hours even with the well-chosen excision of an epilogue with echoes of Richard III's ghost scene and the abandonment of the protagonist of Everyman on his way to judgment by God). The uncovered circular yard of Castle Clinton does possess something of the feel of a tiny Globe with folding chairs, and the production uses the space well, not confining itself to the raised stage, while its bare-stage style streamlines Shaw's predilection for extremely (some would say excessively) detailed stage directions. Shaw's Joan raises some of the same issues of class and gender as his Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1913), both women entering into partnerships with men of higher status that do not last to the end of the play. Village girl Joan routinely calls nobles, including the Dauphin, later crowned King, by their first names, a disregard for (earthly) protocol arguably rooted in rank as much as in religion. She wears men's clothes, wanting to be seen as a soldier and not a woman, and talks back to the ecclesiastical court. In the end, then, it is no surprise that the greatest love for Joan is found among the people rather than the very elite whose goals she helped to achieve; and the Inquisitor (Craig Braun) and others (among them Gregor Roach in a compelling turn as Chaplain de Stogumber) at her trial worry openly about the danger that people like Joan pose to existing institutions.

Shaw wrote in his preface to Saint Joan that there are no villains in the play, but another way of looking at this is that there are almost nothing but villains, all bound by the religious or secular political maneuvering with varying degrees of overt self-interest (the clergy's claims to be above politics notwithstanding). In a nice touch that reflects this dynamic, Mamadou Jalloh plays both one of Joan's most steadfast supporters, Captain La Hire, as well as the executioner. Even Joan, in, for example, her conversations with Robert de Baudricourt and Dunois, despite talk of everyone being God's subjects, espouses a xenophobic nationalism, and her god seemingly condones mass death in the service of language-based property rights. At one point, Joan says that she, her county, and her god are all alone, and one might see the loneliness of which she speaks reflected in how the characters in this production predominantly stand or sit apart and almost never touch one another. For the audience, however, Saint Joan is a fun, free way to be a part of summer in the city.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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