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Actors need to work like the rest of us, so you can’t blame them if they’re a little sore at Eric Tucker. The artistic director of the New York-based troupe Bedlam brings an MTV Unplugged aesthetic to material more often staged with arena rock levels of bombast. By stripping the number of players in Saint Joan—George Bernard Shaw’s 95-year-old chronicle of the trial and execution-by-flame of the 15th century French hero who would become a Catholic saint—from more than two dozen to four, Tucker has made the show perhaps four times as entrancing as a lavishly budgeted production with lots of gainfully employed actors saying very little.
Saint Joan was the test vehicle for Bedlam, the no-frills company Tucker and Andrus Nichols founded in 2012. They’ve continued to tour the show in the years since while bringing their minimum-overhead, maximum-intimacy aesthetic to Hamlet and Sense and Sensibility, among others. With the shrunken cast list, simple costumes (also by Tucker), and barely any set to speak of, the Bedlam method of conjuring antiquity is a cheap date for theaters.
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The troupe has made Saint Joan at home in the Folger space, putting part of the audience on the stage and occasionally putting actors in the audience (and in the rafters). This iteration features two original cast members, Tucker and Edmund Lewis, each playing many roles; relative newbie Sam Massaro plays several distinct characters, too, sometimes within a single scene. Only the remarkable Dria Brown—new to this production, but admirably filling the military tunic that got Joan charged with cross-dressing, among other heresies, back in 1430—has just the one part to play. And it’s no strike against Brown’s conviction in the role when I wonder whether she doesn’t envy her castmates just a little.
After all, they get to embody bishops and lords, officers and farmers, men of frailty and competing passions. They get to adopt various accents and gaits and postures. But Brown is just steady, saintly Joan, visited by angels and instructed by God to drive the English invaders out of Orléans.
Shaw, who was writing from transcripts of Joan’s trial, insisted this is a play without villains because Joan’s accusers and judges upheld their primitive ideas with honor. But to us, a confederacy of dudes who can spend an evening (historically, it was more than a year) bickering over whether or not they ought to set a teenage girl on fire for being a better soldier and more reliable exponent for the word of God than her elder male officers and clergymen, respectively, can’t not seem villainous. And as is usually the case, these let’s-call-them-antivillains seem to have a lot more fun for most of the three-hour show than the actor stuck playing the hero/martyr.
Maybe that’s why Saint Joan doesn’t really find its groove until its second hour, when Tucker makes his first appearance as Warwick, a feudal lord who frets Joan’s populist charisma could upend the caste system from which he has so richly benefitted. Though all of the characters are English or of various nationalities now collectively referred to as “French,” only Warwick speaks in what registers to modern ears as a British accent. The way Tucker threads a note of superciliousness into every hyper-elocuted syllable, and turns every laugh into a mirthless chuckle, made me wish that all the other performances were as richly drawn (or that Tucker had distributed the show’s juiciest speeches a little more equitably).
Massaro’s pious Cauchon and Lewis’s hysterical John de Stogumber are both holy men with their own reasons to fear Joan’s battlefield successes: If God is speaking and acting through an illiterate 17-year-old farmgirl, who needs the Church?
Tucker’s low-fi staging ideas succeed in periodically refreshing our attention while remaining just this side of cute: I don’t know why he announces scene changes by having a headset-wearing stagehand walk out with an anachronistic cassette recorder playing warbly interstitial music in each hand, but it’s just the right amount of punctuation. (Tucker is credited as the production’s sound designer, too.)
When Joan is finally put on trial, lighting director Les Dickert puts her in a shaft of illumination and lets her prosecutors hurl accusations at her from the surrounding darkness. I especially liked that in Saint Joan’s epilogue, set 25 years after Joan burned, the angels of all the characters we knew in life wear glasses. They’re easier to carry around than wings, presumably.
To June 10 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$79. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.