By Roy Brooks
Although the odor of St. Joan of Arc’s burning flesh and the clamoring of her inquisitors died down over 500 years ago, Stark Naked Theatre Company’s current production of Saint Joan delivers a timely message about The Maid of Orléans that’s bound to resurrect her for Houston theatergoers. Stark Naked’s artistic directors Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl have invited Bedlam Theatre (one of off-Broadway’s sexiest au courant companies) to perform the work for a three-week run that’s not to be missed.
Ringing true to its advertising, Saint Joan is indeed a performance unlike anything planned for Houston’s summer season. Directed by Eric Tucker (Wall Street Journal’s 2014 Director of the Year), Saint Joan has been part of Bedlam’s repertory since 2012. Tucker is known for his interest in bringing the audience closer to the play’s action, getting actors to portray multiple roles, and physicalizing work that might otherwise be dialogue-heavy. (Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility, soon to start another off-Broadway run, further confirms Tucker’s innovative approach to the classics.)
Ultimately, Bedlam transforms Saint Joan into a synthesis of opposites: the work is at once jovial and deadly-serious; thoroughly visual, yet the set is bare-bones minimal. Clocking in at just over three hours with two intermissions, the play is epic and expeditious. One hardly notices the hour as the actors clip along, savoring George Bernard Shaw’s language while using multiple performance spaces to echo, conceal, and complement the classic script that has been renewed by Tucker.
Written in 1924, Shaw considered Saint Joan to be his only tragedy. Instead of portraying Joan with a romantic and otherworldly flair (à la Schiller), Shaw’s Joan is an unlettered and chipper country girl teeming with theo-nationalist views. Materialist that he was, Shaw draws attention to his characters’ historical circumstances, refusing to favor one perspective over others. Audiences leave the show with an understanding that goes beyond the “good guy/bad guy” mentality that too frequently marks drama these days.
Shaw considered Joan to be “the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages.” As played by Samantha Steinmetz, Joan proves more lipstick than lumberjack. Thankfully avoiding reductive stereotypes, Steinmetz’s girlish and sincere reading nonetheless comes with a killer pair of boots. Pushed from her pious pedestal, Steinmetz’s Joan is impetuous and thirsty for victory. She shines most brightly opposite Stephan Wolfert (playing Dunois), and her concluding trial scene is especially stirring to behold as Joan finally comes to understand her fate.
Stark Naked’s wonderfully intimate space allows director Tucker’s creative staging to shine. With four actors playing over 20 different characters, the production’s ensemble work astonishes. Spectators are frequently situated among the actors with creative “moveable” seats, and one scene is set in a corridor outside the theater with the audience standing around the perimeter to potentially evoke a mob mentality. Spirits run high as the Chaplain is played with effective bombast by John Russell.
In another dramatic scene, (this is the same scene) the trapezoidal playing area highlights the pressured relations between Joan’s judge, Archbishop Cauchon (played by Stephan Wolfert), and the English Warwick (played by Spencer Aste), who jointly weigh Joan’s destiny. All three actors in this scene excel, and the audience gets a sense of complicity watching them consider the necessity of Joan’s death.
Just when you thought productions in Stark Naked’s 100-seat house couldn’t get any more intimate, the company takes their concept one step further with Saint Joan. Artistic director Kim Tobin-Lehl explains that in bringing Bedlam to Houston, Stark Naked seeks to tangibly demonstrate the vision she and her husband have for the company: “We’ve always been interested in quadrupling roles while keeping to original circumstances of authors like Shakespeare that have minimal sets and put storytelling first. Also, given that an important part of our mission is to pay artists, this aesthetic of acting works.” Indeed, Houston audiences would be hard-pressed to find a production where their money and time could be better spent. Stark Naked is Houston’s own metaphorical Saint Joan, fighting for theater and artistry that, in following its own voices, inspires and deserves to be numbered among the elect.
What: Stark Naked Theatre in association with Bedlam present Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
When: June 2–18, 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St.
Details: Tickets $29 (senior and student rates available) may be purchased online at starknakedtheatre.com or by calling the box office at 832.786.1849.