Much at stake in Magenta Giraffe’s ‘Saint Joan’
The old joke notwithstanding – if you can remember the ’60s, you probably weren’t there – I don’t remember any productions of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” during that tumultuous decade. This is surprising because, along with Sophocles’ “Antigone,” “Saint Joan” is the classic question-authority, bleep-the-establishment drama.
Director Matthew Turner Shelton brings this idea home in his powerhouse adaptation at Magenta Giraffe Theatre. (Incidentally, there were two Broadway productions of “Saint Joan” in the ’60s, though neither lasted very long.) Shelton has done some judicious editing and eliminated a slew of minor characters, with just six actors playing all the others: Allison Megroet in the title role and five men – Dax Anderson, Michael Lopetrone, Keith Kalinowski, Joe Hamid and Jonathan Davidson – doing double- or triple-duty.
The story arc of Joan of Arc, France’s 15th-century national hero, has long intrigued playwrights, from Shakespeare in the 1500s (“Henry VI”) to Shaw in the 1920s, to Maxwell Anderson (“Joan of Lorraine”) in the 1940s to Jean Anouilh (“The Lark”) in the 1950s, among others. No wonder. Hers is a story of war, national pride, courage, faith, rugged individualism, gender stereotyping, challenging authority and what might be called Klum’s Hypothesis: One day you’re in and the next day you’re out.
So it goes for Joan of Arc. Inspired by voices of the saints, which only she can hear, the teenager persuades French nobles to let her lead soldiers in battle against the occupying English. Victorious at Orleans with apparent divine assistance, she goes on to additional military triumphs before the tide turns against her. That’s when the establishment – the church and the nobility – decide to put an end to her in a sham of a trial (for heresy) that constitutes the most gripping scene of Shelton’s staging. The nobility, anything but noble, hate how the people see Joan as a political leader; the nobles are supposed to lead. The churchmen, anything but holy, hate how Joan can be in contact with God; nobody can be in touch with God without the church hierarchy as intermediaries.
Well, we all know how this ends; no play about Joan of Arc depends on suspense to be effective. The impact of Magenta Giraffe’s “Saint Joan” comes from its performances, with a special nod to Allison Megroet; her Joan, despite hearing voices, comes across as the most rational character amid an array of cowards, hypocrites, blowhards and fools. Anderson, Lopetrone, Kalinowski, Hamid and Davidson play them accordingly and convincingly.
Consequently, not only is there much to think about, there is much to feel.
Note: In the program and in publicity materials, Magenta Giraffe attempts to draw parallels between 15th-century France and present-day Detroit. Aside from the likelihood that certain members of the Detroit City Council are hearing voices, I’m not buying it.