Play: Saint Joan
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through February 1
Tickets: From $14.50; contact 314-968-4925 or repstl.org
Story: In 1429 a young maid from rural France begins a startling ascent to power, inspired by what she says are the voices of St. Catherine, St. Margaret and St. Michael the Archangel. The voices encourage Joan to lead her French comrades in arms against the forces of the ruling English and take back their homeland. Additionally, she uses her persuasive powers to have the vain and weakly Dauphin crowned as the king of France. Ultimately, her liberal interpretations of individual communion with God draw the skepticism and investigation of the Roman Catholic Church. She is tried for heresy before the Inquisition and burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19. Nearly 500 years later, however, she is declared a saint.
Highlights: Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan just a few years after her official canonization in 1920, and thus was able to weave the machinations of the religious establishment into the text of his drama. The meticulous presentation now being performed at The Rep intricately establishes both the unbridled fervor of the teenage Joan and the austere and pompous boundaries of the church and government of her time as viewed by director Paul Mason Barnes.
For nearly three hours Barnes’ talented cast plays out this medieval tale of heroism and betrayal in straightforward fashion on an eye-popping set designed by Robert Mark Morgan that blends the symbol of French history, the fleur-de-lis, with a backdrop of 13 crosses, ostensibly representing the church of Jesus and his 12 apostles. The fleur-de-lis both looms over the production and also supports it on a marble-like slab that carries the weight of the presentation.
Additionally, the impressive, myriad costumes designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis convey a variety of medieval types, from the peasantry of Joan, who controversially wore men’s garb, to the flowing robes of the royalty and church hierarchy and the uniforms of the military. All of this is complemented by Peter Sargent’s precisely illuminated lighting, particularly the soft hues that bathe the backdrop, and an atmospheric sound design by Rusty Wandall.
Other Info: While Shaw’s approach to the heresy trial was said to be impartial, Barnes’ interpretation is broader and etched in villainy, which is his prerogative. Tarah Flanagan, as the sole female performer, brings a winning combination of ardent passion for her country and a disarming way of flattery, although one can’t help but look around for Tinker Bell when viewing her gamin, pixie demeanor.
She is well supported by the likes of John Rensenhouse as the affable and opportunistic Earl of Warwick and Bobby Steggert as the dour and ineffectual Charles, the Dauphin. James Anthony lends his imposing physical force and deep voice to the gravity of the Archbishop of Rheims, while Jason Cannon delights both as the earnest Captain La Hire and as a rowdy English soldier visiting from hell in the quaint epilogue. Jerry Vogel is in fine form in a couple of roles, including the exasperated squire Robert de Baudricourt, Kevin Orton is appealing as the dutiful Jack Dunois and Matt D’Amico is a powerful presence as the wildly impassioned English nationalist Brother Martin.
Others in the cast include Keith Merrill as the erudite executioner, Jonathan Gillard Daly as the imposing inquisitor, Stephen Paul Johnson as the somber Canon Courcelles, Keith Merrill as the flamboyant Bluebeard, Brian White, Greg Fink, Ian Way, Christopher Gerson, Andrew Stroud and Tuck Milligan.
As much a reverential shaping of classic theater as a look at events of cosmic proportions that helped shape western history, The Rep’s Saint Joan offers a sturdy, if sometimes turgid, artistic vision of one of the great English-speaking playwrights.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.