If you see the title Saint Joan and think "long boring story about a girl who hears voices," you couldn't be more wrong. Here's why: Saint Joan is often laugh-out-loud funny. And in the hands of Bedlam, an acting company founded in 2012, the play is brought exuberantly to life in an electric production at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre.
George Bernard Shaw put his own modern spin on the recorded events of Joan of Arc's life to examine the conflict between individual conscience and authority. His version hews relatively close to history. Plucky, persuasive Joan (played by Andrus Nichols) hears the voices of saints who tell her to drive the English from France and see the Dauphin crowned king. She manages to talk her way into military supplies, lay siege to the city of Orleans, and take it back from the English. Through a series of fortunate events (some may call them "miracles"), Joan ends up leading the French army in their defeat of the English.
After an extremely deadly battle in which the English sustain heavy losses, Joan is accused by both the French and English of witchcraft and of heresy, that is, putting her ideas and interests above those of the church. Joan leads the French to victory, and the Dauphin is crowned king. But Joan wants to take back Paris too. This idea fails to win support, and she finds herself alone, and later on trial for heresy. She then realizes that the voices she has been hearing have failed to protect her. In the eyes of the judges, this voice-hearing, woman-dressing-as-a-man witch who puts her own ideas above the church's, must be burned at the stake.
In order to achieve the physical immediacy of these events and of Joan's ultimate isolation, Bedlam has stripped away the fancy costumes and detailed scenery and put the emphasis squarely where it belongs — on the language and action — then brings it all right to the audience. Bedlam's four brilliant actors take on the roles of the play's twenty-odd characters on a wide-open, audience-level stage, which features imaginative set designs by John McDermott. The general admission seats are positioned around the theater and rearranged during both intermissions, so you can decide just how close you want to be to the action.
"Action" is an understatement. Actors Andrus Nichols, Eric Tucker (who also directed), Edmund Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe work — work! — the theater from top to bottom, playing all those characters with aplomb. How do they do it? With a hand to the stomach and a puffed-out face, you see the Archbishop of Rheims. With a flick of the wrist, a twist of the beard, you see the Dauphin's impersonator, Bluebeard. A deliciously fun trick that the actors play in the beginning is tossing a character from one to the other. Tucker becomes the Archbishop, then O'Keefe puts hand to stomach and takes the role, then he wings it back to Tucker, like kids tossing a Frisbee. These guys are having fun, and it's a riot to watch. Every aspiring thespian will learn a thing or two here.
The masterful acting is not all this production has going for it. Bedlam keeps this sometimes talky Shaw play moving without diluting Shaw's language and themes. Under Tucker's direction, even the longer conversation scenes, such as the one in the second act, course along at a brisk pace. The audience literally sits next to and around the actors as they discuss Joan's fate, making it nearly impossible to be disengaged from the action. In less skillful hands, the scene might plod on painfully. But O'Keefe, Tucker, and Lewis give it an intensity and humor that keeps the audience riveted.
Shaw's Saint Joan and Bedlam have something in common: They violate expectations. Shaw disregards the conventions of classical tragedy by not giving us villains to hate or a hero to love. In fact, at the end we're left feeling ambivalent about everyone, including Joan. In a similar way, Bedlam turns the theatrical experience on its head, by showcasing Shaw's undeniably brilliant language in a kinetic, illuminating production. So don't let the humble title fool you. Bedlam's Saint Joan is one of the off-Broadway season's highlights.