Slow Burn

Saint Joan

Watching a dramatization of the story of Joan of Arc is a bit like watching a movie about the Titanic: You know how it’s going to come out, but there’s still a slow-motion fascination to be had watching the human aspects of the tragedy unfold. So it is with the Maid of Orléans — Joan always will be a pious young woman, always will hear voices, and always will achieve amazing military victories against the English. And in the end, there’s the stake, the heart that would not burn, the eventual retrial, and the canonization five hundred years later.

George Bernard Shaw knew this story well, and was horrified by the way other writers had handled it. Believing their work to be “trashy melodrama,” he had long fantasized about writing a play in which Shakespeare and Voltaire would run through the back streets of heaven just to avoid having to face Joan. But it would be years before Shaw would put his own hand to the task. What Shaw finally came up with in 1924 was a series of miracles performed by history’s most famous farm girl briefly interrupted by an execution. A full three hours long (including an epilogue that runs a bit like those “what happened after the happy ending” stories you sometimes see at the end of movies), complex and wordy, Saint Joan represents a serious commitment of time and energy for the company and the audience alike.

Surprisingly, though, it’s not all seriousness. While laughter during a play about a woman who makes war and then gets roasted seems odd, the first act in particular is very funny — in a wry, erudite sort of way. Joan may not be worldly but she is sharp, and the men she interacts with (she is the only female character in the play) are a good-natured lot, accustomed, most of them, to warring and whoring. Their language is accordingly earthy and brisk. Post-burning, a spectral Joan returns to visit King Charles in a dream, where she joshes some of the other characters (“Will you be unburning me, then?” she asks upon learning of her ascension to sainthood). While the play is hardly a laugh riot, Shaw’s trenchant wit is visible throughout, providing welcome relief from the heaviness of wars, plotting, and religious wrangling.

Shaw’s play proposes that two seemingly unstoppable forces were at work here: one young woman’s grim determination, fueled by religious fervor, pitted, eventually, against the need of the State and the Church to maintain order and control. It’s hard not to have sympathy for the latter — Shaw’s Inquisitors really are doing their best to redeem Joan while protecting her from being tortured or otherwise abused by her English captors. Even if you disagree with the Inquisition’s methods, there are moments in the second act where it seems that agreeing to the salvation they offer would have made perfect sense.

There’s a beautiful, vulnerable moment when Brother Martin (Gabriel Sebastian Marin) extends his hands to Joan, truly convinced that he can save her from her demonic possession. In that moment the whole mechanism is revealed — four men in full white robes, trying to bring the logic they understand to a world that defies logic at every turn, and a woman so unswerving in her dedication as to appear diabolic. That’s part of the beauty of this work: As Shaw explained in his preface, there are no villains here, and the heroes take unusual forms.

It’s impossible to talk about Emily Ackerman’s Joan without invoking fire — for one thing, whether in a dress or soldier’s gear she’s always costumed in a brilliant red, in striking contrast to the blues, blacks, and purples of the other actors. The choice, which seems a little obvious at first, eventually feels more subtle. Before she is captured by the English, even before she meets the sniveling Dauphin and persuades him to let her lead an army, Joan is on fire, totally and ecstatically engulfed by her visions. Concealed in the bells that ring out from the church, Joan’s voices proclaim that God made France for the French (those who work her soil and speak her language) and England for the English, and that as long as the English occupy French soil, they are out of harmony with God’s plan. Ackerman portrays Joan with such a purity of expression, with a voice so clear and resonant, it is easy to believe that this seventeen-year-old would eventually succeed in ousting the English.

Ackerman’s perfor-mance is vividly realized, from her first encounter with Baudricourt (who will, almost despite himself, end up giving her men, armor, and a horse) through her realization that by confessing to her sins she will only trade the stake for the equally unacceptable alternative of life imprisonment (“Light your fire, then!” she roars) and the final wrapping-up when the men who let her serve as their firebrand and then abandoned her finally make their apologies. It’s a bravura, no-holds-barred performance, and Ackerman ignites the stage every time she takes it.

Which makes the central concept of the character all the more interesting. For if you go beneath the image of the innocent young female crusader dressed in men’s clothes, you discover a character awash in moral ambivalence — a character who, after hearing voices, cheerfully leads men to their deaths in the name of God while cheerfully slaying the invader. Are we uncomfortable yet? The men around Joan — warriors, kings, churchmen — certainly are, and speak openly of their discomfort.

Ackerman is well-matched by a cast that includes L. Peter Callender (Dunois, Inquisitor) as the commander who becomes her military mentor, Søren Oliver (the Archbishop), and Paul Silverman as the crawly Dauphin (whose transition to Charles the Victorious is quite gratifying). They’ll take advantage of her fervor, certainly, for it inspires the troops and motivates the people, but all the while they’re scheming to eventually neutralize her.

As Aurora’s first show in its new, 150-seat space just a few doors east of the Berkeley Rep, Saint Joan is one ambitious mouthful. It’s also a very well-cast and well-acted mouthful, featuring several actors who have worked with the company repeatedly over its ten-year history, both acting and directing. The recent two-million-dollar renovation has created a cozy new home for the company; while it seats twice as many people as the group once played to, the theater is only five rows deep, and the space still so intimate that I saw one audience member resting his feet on the rungs of a chair that had been placed on stage as a prop. The set and costumes are saturated yet simple, relying on a few rich fabrics and repeating motifs, the sound design evoking crowds, birds, and the (blessedly offstage) fire of Joan’s martyrdom. Fortunately, the new seats are very comfy, because this is a long show, even moving at the good clip the cast maintains, covering as it does so much ground and so many issues.

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