Expectation Values: ‘St. Joan’ at The Broad Stage

Taken by itself,  Bedlam’s production of Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ was well-performed and well-received.  Four performers gave it their all and the audience acknowledged them enthusiastically at the end of the three hour evening.  Unfortunately it suffers when compared to director Eric Tucker’s 2005 effort in the SFV.   Fallible memory is part of the problem.  It is too easy to add details to an enjoyable evening – details that creep into memory even though they may not have occurred.  At more pressing issue is the misfit between the production’s ambitions and the venue.  The Broad Stage seats 499 in relative comfort, a far cry from the tiny warehouse off of Vineland with bleacher seating moved in-show by the cast.  The conventional proscenium stage dilutes the impact of the performances with every passing row.  Those of us who selected the “on stage” option were seated in the back of the hall for the first and third acts and brought on stage only for the second.   The website stated that the audience would be onstage for one or two acts, not being clear which production (‘Hamlet’ runs in rep) would have which.

The 2005 production had Tucker, David Neher, and Eloise Ayala performing the twenty-plus non-Joan roles to better effect than the three performers who divided the tasks here, playing from the aisles and seats as the show progressed – common festival approach that feels oddly out-of-place indoors.  It is hard to see subtle character shifts from a long distance and the uneven accent work didn’t help matters.    The second act allowed those onstage to see and hear up close the back-room dealings and intrigue that make so much of this play.  There is something about the maid, though. Aundria Brown is a compelling Joan, elevating the production whenever she’s on.  We get Shaw didactic, Shaw political, Shaw polemical, Shaw militant, and Shaw comical in spades.  The payoff is when imprisoned, tortured, and bullied Joan recants her confession in a marvelous third act speech preferring death to  dungeon life away from her land, her animals, and her soldiers.  For this seldom seen Shaw pastoral (‘Village Wooing’ being a notable exception), we are again in the back of beyond with the impact correspondingly blunted.  It would have made more sense to have the audience on stage for this than the courtly intrigue although it would have required a major rethinking of the staging and stagecraft. This production does include the final dream sequence where the characters reassemble and wrap things up in a sweet epilogue.

It would have been nice to see the Bighead/Bedlam minimalist aesthetic continue in Los Angeles but no one can blame Tucker for heading back east.  Grapes may grow best in stony soil but arts organizations need more arable land.  This  ‘St. Joan’ ultimately has to compete against its younger, poorer, fearless, and reckless self.   It’s fighting a fond memory and there are few tougher opponents.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

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