Saturday, January 24, 2015

Underground Railway Theater Presents Bedlam's "St. Joan" by George Bernard Shaw - A Theatrical Delight

Four actors perform all 24 roles in Bedlam’s production of Saint Joan, declared “Irresistible! Ferocious!” and “A force of nature!” by the New York Times and a Top Ten Play of 2013 by Time magazine.

These quotations and notes of acclimation about the current production running at the Central Square Theater are only the tip of the iceberg.  Even though we are early in 2015, I believe that at year's end people will be talking about this production of Shaw's "St. Joan" as one of the highlights of the Boston/Cambridge theater season.  Underground Railway Theater have invited the New York-based Bedlam company to reprise their production that has played to delighted audiences in New York and beyond since 2013.  

The company, founded by Andrus Nichols and Eric Tucker, takes a fresh and bare-bones approach to this iconic play, integrating the audience into the action in creative ways.  One of those techniques is to require a portion of the audience to move to another seat during each of the two intermissions.The tacit message is clear.  Just as Shaw wanted us to see the sainted Joan of Arc in new ways, this company of actors invite us to see the play and its myriad themes from different perspectives - physically and psychologically.  Mr. Tucker directs this production with a deft touch.

The set is spare and movable - chairs, a wall upon which the characters write to indicate whether we are in Chinon, Orleans or elsewhere.  Lighting is simple.  Sometimes we find the actors sitting among the audience.and at other times in the more traditional spot on the stage, surrounded on three sides by bleacher-style seating. The founding partners are joined in this production by Edmund Lewis and Tom O'Keefe.  This quartet have clearly worked together for awhile, for their chemistry is palpable and their ability to shift seamlessly between characters makes the complex story easy to follow, even for those that may not have been previously familiar with the Shaw play.

The entire three act play is engaging, but the moments that stood out for me in watching this performance were Joan's appearance before the Inquisition, which had charged her with heresy, and an epilogue-type section in which the long dead Joan engages in conversation with those she knew in life about the ironic phenomenon of her having been granted that status of Saint by the Church that had once condemned her.  And the burning question of why we rarely recognize saints for who they are while they walk and live among us became even more poignant as I attended a performance on the eve of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Andrus Nichols as Joan
Bedlam's "St. Joan"
George Bernard Shaw
Central Square Theater
through February 1
Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
The play is a classic, yet the themes are as fresh as today's CNN broadcasts: the role of fundamentalism vs. entrenched conservative institutions, faith vs. reason, the ways in which an individual discerns God's will and His leading, the role of a strong woman in a man's world.  Andrus Nichols portrays young Joan,as a complex woman, projecting a smoky voice filled with strength, zeal,passion and determination, even up until her betrayal that led her to the stake. There is a heart-rending moment when it finally hits her that she is standing alone.  The Church has turned against her for daring to hear from God without using them as the sole approved intermediary.  Her military compatriots and the Dauphin, whom she had crowned, have turned against her. Have the voices of her saints also led her astray?  Doubt creeps in and she capitulates, until she realizes that forgiveness and grace are not being offered here.  She is a fiery presence long before the match was struck that sent her to her death and to a life so everlasting that we are still buzzing about her 500 years after she was the Maid of Orleans.

This is a production you will not want to miss.  Pay heed to that voice in your head that is telling you that you must lead an army of theater goers to Central Square to see this show.  You have until February 1st to complete your quest.



Central Square Theater Website

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