Thursday, March 12, 2020

Review - Saint Joan - Orchard Theater Collective - Fantastic Theater from True Believers - 5 Stars

The Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan is fantastic.  (And I don’t say that lightly.). Honestly, just skip the rest of this review and just go.  If you love theater half as much as this crew obviously loves theater, you’ll all get along fine and be happy you got a chance to hang out for a couple of hours.

“Her heart would not burn.  It would not drown.”

What’s it about?  Joan of Arc, a young woman in the 15th century who claimed to hear voices from God instructing her to lead an army to drive the invading British out of France, and see French prince Charles crowned a king.  (Historical spoilers) Shortly after completing her mission, Joan was captured by the British, who tried her for witchcraft and heresy and burned her at the stake.  20 years later, King Charles VII ordered a new trial to clear Joan’s name and restore her reputation.  Many people in France considered her to be a saint, long before the Catholic Church got around to making it official in the early 20th century.

So, not a musical comedy.  But not without a lot of laughs all the same (that’s Shaw’s thing, whip-smart humor), and incredibly compelling theater to watch.

“The cathedral is empty, and the streets are full.”

The past year from a personal/family standpoint has been pretty traumatic.  I used to be able to just go see any theater production and find something to enjoy because, hey, it’s theater and there’s something just inherently fun and exciting about live performance.  It’s been hard to connect with theater again, as a writer or an audience member, since the deaths in my family, because, well, the foundations of your world get knocked out of alignment, it’s hard to give a crap about telling stories.  It’s still important, of course. It’s just hard to claw your way back to some kind of normalcy where you feel you can allow yourself to expend emotional energy on something imaginary.  It’s an ongoing process.  I’m nowhere near the end of it.  But I realized that it was a good sign at the start of 2020 when I actually found myself getting a little intrigued about the idea of seeing this or that play or theater company, or feel regret when I knew I was going to have to miss something because of scheduling and realize that meant I was genuinely interested in seeing it in the first place.  There are certain things I’m still just not up for.  No rhyme or reason to it, I just feel it in my gut and I’ve learned not to fight it for now.  Every day I open up a little more.  Every day it gets a little better.  Theater actually is helping.  One production pries open a little extra space for some other kind of theater to get in.

“She is the last card left in our hand.  Better play her than give up the game.”

So why a George Bernard Shaw play, tucked away in small, traditional chapel off to the side of the Plymouth Congregational Church’s more sprawling, modern community space?  Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’m familiar with some Shaw but not Saint Joan specifically.  More than anything I was curious about the Orchard Theater Collective because they’ve been producing shows for a couple of years but I’d only just tripped over a mention of them in a couple of artists’ bios in the program at another production (weirdly enough also in a converted church space).   Did some internet homework, had that little nudge in my brain that said, oh go on, you’re curious, that has to count for something.

“Put courage into the others but leave me alone.”

Saint Joan is the kind of production that takes a logistical challenge and uses it as a springboard to create better art than they might have come up with if they had it easy.  The chapel is intimate, but at the same time it has one of those high vaulted ceilings that makes the space seem vast, if you just think to look up now and again.  Characters can be both enormous, and very small, depending on the perspective that the production and the actors bring to any given moment.  The choir loft isn’t just a place to sequester the stage manager, there are times when voices or sound effects emanate from it, again drawing our eyes upward.  The space just outside the chapel doors is alive with sound and activity throughout the production, and the hint of light from beyond the narthex continues that sense of the larger world outside the story in front of us.  The audience seating is reconfigured at intermission to open up the space even as the world is closing in on Joan - making her seem smaller, and the forces raised against her larger.  Director Benjamin Robert Shaw has staged the hell out of this thing.  And not in a flashy way that says, hey audience, look what we’re doing, aren’t we clever?  It’s only after the whole production washes over you and you’re thinking about it later that you realize, damn, that was a subtle but absolutely brilliant move.

“The pit is open at her feet. We cannot keep her from it.”

And the cast, oh the cast!  Again, the word fantastic more than applies to everyone across the board, starting with Annie Shiferl as Joan.  Shiferl is electrifying in the way she embodies Joan, you can’t take your eyes off of her.  She makes Joan fully human, which it tricky when you’re dealing with someone who hears voices and claims divine intervention drives her actions.  It’s not just the other characters telling you that Joan is mesmerizing, when you’re in Shiferl’s presence in this role, you believe it, too.

“The devil has betrayed you.  The church holds out its arms for you.”

The other four actors in this ensemble all play multiple roles - three, four, sometimes five characters.  Jorie Kosel’s costume design is deceptively simple, and perfect.  The looks for all the characters are vivid, sometimes grotesque, but always in keeping with the period and Shaw’s larger than life canvas.  For those who need a little help telling people apart with visual cues, Kosel’s costumes do the trick.  But honestly, these actors almost don’t need any help. 

“Your little hour of miracles is over.”

The acting work here by Meg Bradley, Craig Johnson, Damian Leverett, and Tim Sailer is so good, you always know exactly who they are.  Everything they do is incredibly precise.  It’s stunning stuff. GB Shaw’s script and BR Shaw’s direction give the whole cast rich material and countless opportunities and they make the most of every bit of it.  Bradley goes from being a corrupt church official in the French royal court to another church leader at Joan’s trial striving mightily to help Joan save herself to a bewildered executioner.  Sailer is equally at home as a soldier in waiting, a petulant prince or an incensed self-important church leader calling for Joan’s damnation.  Leverett is also quite an impressive chameleon throughout.  And there is a sequence in the final scene of the play where all he does is take off a hat, stand up and change his voice and suddenly he’s not a comical low-ranking military grunt, he’s a leading man in one of those black and white heroic period films they don’t make anymore.  He does something so small and suddenly he’s a completely different person.  Even simple moments like that can be thrilling to watch.

“Some of them would steal the Pope’s horse if they had the chance.”

Johnson works some real magic here, whether he’s a befuddled French lord swept up in Joan’s mission, a lowly born enlisted man willing to follow her into battle, a calculating British man plotting the politics of Joan’s downfall, or an Inquisitor shipped in from France to seal Joan’s fate.  The Inquisitor in particular is a genius piece of character work, backed up by a wonderfully unsettling costume choice.  The man never raises his voice, never seems unreasonable, is often quite amusing, and is at all times ready to sentence you to death.  It is freaky, and wonderful to see happen right in front of you.

“If you could bring her back to life, they would burn her again within six months.”

At its base, theater is just words and people.  People on stage and people in the seats watching them. The Orchard Theater Collective gets that.  They put the fundamentals front and center and it is bracing to be in the same room with it while it’s happening.  This production of Saint Joan reminds me why I love theater, and boy do I need that right now.

“God is no man’s daily drudge, and no maid’s either.”

Of course, you need to be able to see those people for it to work, so let’s not forget Alex Clark’s lighting design.  Lighting a show in a church, with no standard grid built into the space from which to hang and position lighting instruments is a challenge that Clark clearly enjoyed tackling.  The stark lighting of Joan’s trial scene is chilling, but always reinforcing rather than overpowering the scene at hand.  The extended dream sequence that is the final scene makes full use of the entire space from chapel to outer lobby and here again, Clark knows how to play with light and shadow and support rather than wreck the otherworldly quality that the scene needs to maintain.  But I think my favorite scene is when it feels (deceptively so) like there’s very little light at all, between Joan and that fellow soldier leading man character of Leverett’s.  The two are getting ready to go into battle, and having a disagreement on how best to do it.  But it’s also an intimate scene about who they both are, and what they feel called to do.  The semi-darkness surrounds all of us, making the audience part of their secret meeting.  And the light from outside (I can’t think it’s an accident, it must be deliberate) provides just enough illumination to make the colors pop in the stained glass windows all around us.  Gorgeous.

“Thirty thousand thunders, fifty thousand devils!”

And as adept as this ensemble of actors is at creating a whole world with just a handful of people, it really helps complete that illusion by having the sound effects of crowds and battle to augment key moments both within and between scenes.  Director Shaw does double duty himself on sound design.  And stage manager Sarah Perron helps everyone keep all these balls in the air and making it look easy.

“I hear voices telling me what to do.  They come from God.”

In what can often feel like a dark time these days, a time I really need to believe in something better, it’s uplifting to watch people who do believe, and fervently.  That’s both Joan and company within the play Saint Joan itself, and the Orchard Theater Collective as a whole presenting the play, almost as if theater might be the cure for what ails us, body and soul.

(I know, I know.  Shaw.  History.  Religion.  Ugh.  Forget all that.)

Trust me.  Go.  See Saint Joan.  Just go.

(The Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan runs through March 21, 2020 in the chapel at Plymouth Congregational Church.  Heads up, early start time, 7pm)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo: Joan (Annie Shiferl) on trial, Brother Martin (Damian Leverett) at her side in the Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan; photography by Alex Clark]

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