Joan: Yes: they told me you were fools [the word gives great offence], and that I was not to listen to your fine words nor trust to your charity. You promised me my life; but you lied [indignant exclamations]. You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead. It is not the bread and water I fear: I can live on bread: when have I asked for more? It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. Bread has no sorrow for me, and water no affliction. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills; to make me breathe foul damp darkness, and keep from me everything that brings me back to the love of God when your wickedness and foolishness tempt me to hate Him: all this is worse than the furnace in the Bible that was heated seven times. I could do without my warhorse; I could drag about in a skirt; I could let the banners and the trumpets and the knights and soldiers pass me and leave me behind as they leave the other women, if only I could still hear the wind in the trees, the larks in the sunshine, the young lambs crying through the healthy frost, and the blessed blessed church bells that send my angel voices floating to me on the wind. But without these things I cannot live; and by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is of God.
Eight years and one week ago, I saw a production of Shaw‘s Saint Joan that I can’t get out of my mind. Bighead Theatricalities staged it in an industrial park warehouse off of Vineland somewhere in the back of the San Fernando Valley. But, that’s not all that unusual in Los Angeles. What stood out was that this massive, sprawling, Nobel prize-winning play was done with a total of four performers, one of whom doubled as the stage manager. This was no staged reading or minified adaptation – every character was fully present, every speech spoken, and the audience whisked on rolling seats from one part of the space to another by the actors themselves. They also served snacks in the lobby and chatted with the audience during intermission. Shaw’s words spun up brilliantly and inexorably over three hours until Joanna Beecher’s luminous Joan refused to cop a plea. It broke through the swirl of comedy, politics, and polemics and took everyone’s heart with it. It was one of those lump-in-the-throat moments that prove that artists are different from us. Fearless, exuberant, altogether unforgettable it played that night to four people. Which is also not unusual in Los Angeles.
I always wondered what happened to director/performer/producer Eric Tucker who came up with the concept and picked the team that executed it so expertly. Unfortunately for us in the Southland, he is in New York City. Fortunately for theatre, he’s still at it. Bighead has become Bedlam, they’re still doing small cast adaptations of big plays, and the New York Times has taken notice. They have deservedly developed a loyal following. Neither the article nor Bedlam’s website make any mention of the Los Angeles productions – unfortunately also not unusual.
My 2005 notes to fellow theatregoers are after the jump.
They Just Keep Coming
SAINT JOAN won Shaw a Nobel. Long, wordy, and full of ideas it
nevertheless has any number of juicy roles, especially the title
character, that can keep ensembles happy. What a surprise then to see
it staged brilliantly by four actors – one who plays Joan and three
who play the twenty-six others. And thus did the relatively unknown
Bighead Theatricals present this in a bravura performance to small
audiences in a nondescript industrial park in NoHo’s back of beyond.
For their troubles, their landlord booted them out of the space a week
early, depriving several audience members of the chance of spreading
the word of this little gem. Apart from leaving out the Epilogue due
to lack of rehearsal time, this was a full-up three-act nearly three
hour offering in which Shaw’s words literally sprang to life.
Director Eric Tucker and David Neher handled all of the male roles
with accent shifts, little costume adjustment, and the occasional
smirk. Eloise Ayala doubled as ensemble member and stage manager,
reading certain cues and introductions appropriate to the task at
hand. This left Joanna Beecher to deftly and poignantly handle the
role of The Maid who lifted sieges and put spine back into a King only
to get the stake for her troubles. The same four handled the box
office, concession stands, and set changes. Neher’s British accent
was so good, an English audience member asked him point blank where he
was from. Oklahoma, as it happens. Lots of little touches made this
evening spellbinding. It takes talent and not a little chutzpah to
use a sock puppet to portray the cowardly Chaplain John of Stogumber
in an otherwise serious production. Beecher and Tucker are apparently
the founders of the troupe, hailing from Rhode Island. They’ve
produced in LA before but are outside of the nominal network of small
ensembles. Much like Azad in ‘Karima’s City’, the lead character
winds up in a jail with no way out. Society, secular and
ecclesiastical, offers Joan the torture of hope through the chance to
recant, which she accepts. When she is told that she’ll live in
perpetual confinement, she chooses the stake – not before explaining
the singular difference between being alive and merely not being dead.
Anyone with a heart to break could not have resisted the material and
Beecher’s presentation of it.
Apart from a timely rave in the Weekly, this show managed to evade
every spotter, sensor, and radar trained on the world of LA arts.
Four actors played to four audience members who, fortunately, knew the
work, liked Shaw, and consequently were taken completely by it. It
deserved far better. They have reminded a couple of people of
Independent Shakespeare and that’s high praise.