Shakespeare Theatre's 'Saint Joan' lacks spirituality to make it great


Washington -- When you see the trial scene in the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Shaw's "Saint Joan," you begin to wonder why it feels so familiar. Is it because the audience has been conditioned by all of the televised hearings in recent years? Or is it because the scene strikes the chord the playwright suggested in his epilogue -- the realization that if Joan of Arc were alive today, we'd burn her all over again?

In this production, directed by Sarah Pia Anderson, it's probably the former. Though this is a strong effort overall, Gail Grate's Joan only meets the demands of the character halfway.

With her chin held high and her gaze unwavering, Ms. Grate conveys Joan's pride, impudence and youth. She is every bit the irresistible force meeting the immovable obstacle, as Shaw described her confrontation with the dual authorities of Church and State. What's missing is the infectious spirituality that moved men to follow this teen-age girl into battle. Joan must have been the 15th century equivalent of a charismatic teen idol -- with an entourage ranging from common soldiers to royalty -- but Ms. Grate's religious fervor seems more personally than publicly compelling.

However, the production does an excellent job presenting the case for authority. Always one for a good argument, Shaw invested the representatives of Church and State with reason and compassion.

Joan's opponents aren't monsters, they're just trying to protect society from the upheaval of change. In one of most cunningly realized scenes, Jack Ryland's slickly political Warwick and Ted van Griethuysen's equally political Bishop of Beauvais agree to pursue Joan for separate, but similarly expedient reasons.

Interestingly enough, the character who comes across as Joan's closest kindred spirit is a coward (though she gives him courage). Philip Goodwin's Dauphin may be an exasperatingly petulant ninny, but he shares Joan's innocent, childlike exuberance.

Since Shaw was hardly a fan of Shakespeare's, he probably would have been amused to know that not only is one of his plays finally being produced by the Shakespeare Theatre, but it marks the theater's final large-scale production in the Folger Shakespeare Library; in February it leaves its home of two decades for more spacious quarters in the Lansburgh building in downtown Washington. This "Saint Joan" may not be as spiritually uplifting as it could have been, but thematically it seems an appropriate way to bid farewell to the past.

"Saint Joan" continues at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington through Jan. 26; call (202) 546-4000.

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