WASHINGTON, D.C. - “Saint Joan” is onstage at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. through June 10 which is brilliantly acted by a cast of four actors who play all 25 roles.
The play, George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 masterpiece that is told in six scenes and an epilogue, tells the story of the peasant girl who became the savior of France and was burned at the stake.
Considered one of the world’s most famous military leaders of our time, the story of the Catholic Saint is told in three ingenious hours that keeps the audience awed from the light and comical beginning to its weighty and thought-provoking end.
Performed by the New York City-based acting troupe Bedlam, the play’s staging in the Folger’s intimate theater could not be more perfect as it allowed for an immersive experience. Directed by Bedlam’s artistic director Eric Tucker, the production’s minimalist staging and props provide for onstage seating and for up close and personal interaction with the audience. A highlight of the play is the impressive ease with which Tucker and two other male actors masterfully play several roles, sometimes portraying several characters in a single scene. They even occasionally play two characters who are having a conversation with one another.
Born in 1412 in an obscure village, Domrémy-la-Pucelle, near the province of Lorraine, Joan, under Divine guidance, led the French Army to defeat the British during the Hundred Years' War. The play focuses on the last two years of her life, 1429-31. At the age of 16, Joan begins hearing the “voices” of three Christian saints—St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. They urge her to travel to Chinon to convince the Dauphin (heir apparent to the French throne, but uncrowned) to fight to reclaim the French throne after the infant King Henry VI of England is proclaimed king of France by the English.
As Joan, Aundria Brown passionately plays the martyred heroine, maturing rapidly from an almost child-like, illiterate farm girl. At one point, she gleefully fist-bumped a fellow soldier when she is allowed to dress in men’s armor to an able and superb commander, who can direct the firing of a cannon better than her troops.
When the French won a string of stunning victories over the English, with Joan’s aid, the Dauphin (wittily played by Edmund Lewis, who also represents John De Stogumber and others) is crowned Charles VII, King of France. When the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English, the play’s initial farcial tone becomes chillingly more somber. As the political stakes play out, Brown is at her best. The actress regally portrays Joan’s unconditional faith in her voices when charged with heresy and Joan’s horror intensifies when she learns that she is to be executed.
As the Earl of Warwick, a member of the feudal aristocracy who pushes for Joan’s execution, in favor of his selfish interests, Tucker is superb in his portrayal of greediness and immorality. Sam Massaro as Couchon/Poulengey and others, ably plays the archbishop who is convinced that Joan’s voices are demonic because she will not submit to the church and is determined to save her soul.
With today’s impact that women’s voices are having around the world, the Folger’s staging of “Saint Joan” is perfectly timed. Gripping, riveting and richly woven with its themes of courage and unshakeable faith, “Saint Joan” is a testament to all women who have stood in their truth even in the face of humiliation or even death.