Most depictions of Joan of Arc highlight the mysteries of her faith, but George Bernard Shaw cut through all that with an atheist's pragmatism. His Saint Joan (1923) reveals a force of nature related more to his Nietzsche-derived idea of the Superman than Catholic lore; Joan's divine spark is her very human optimism, honesty, and intelligence.
At Quintessence Theatre Group, Shaw's Saint Joan comes alive through Leigha Kato, whose youthful exuberance and petite stature make her appropriately unlikely to lead France's forces into battle against the occupying British in 1429 — yet the historical Joan really did. Shaw's Joan is considered the female role on par with Shakespeare's Hamlet, which sometimes means it's played by older "stars" instead of actors right for the role.
Was Joan as smart and witty as Shaw makes her? Probably not, but his is the most entertainingly human Joan (despite others by Voltaire, Jean Anouilh, Friedrich Schiller, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, and that Shakespeare guy), and her nearly three-hour story soars in one engaging witty debate after another in Rebecca Wright's terrific production.
Only ten other actors play 30-plus roles, but strong acting and Nikki Delhomme's clever costumes keep them — and the political, military, and religious facts of the time — clear for us. Standouts include Quintessence stalwart Josh Carpenter as colorful rascal Bluebeard and a more conniving Earl of Warwick, who gets delicious lines like, "The men who want something for nothing are inevitably Christian"; Alan Brinks as dutiful Brother Martin and Joan's loyal friend Dunois (the Bastard); and Andrew Betz as the Dauphin, the feckless prince who becomes, through Joan's efforts, King Charles VII.
Wright stages the play with audience on two sides on Alexander Burns's black raked ramp. Brian Sidney Bembridge's powerful lighting sculpts the action, along with some artful smoke effects and sound designer Adriano Shaplin's suspenseful underscoring and martial drums. The play benefits from this intimacy; we can't sit more than four rows from the stage, and Wright focuses our attention on the acting, which would seem less personal in a larger space that would force the actors to declaim.
Delhomme's costumes are the production's boldest choice, shaped correctly for the period but in bright patterned fabrics resembling pajamas. This seems whimsical, but actually supports Wright's biggest directorial flourish: splitting Shaw's epilogue, which is Charles VII's dream years later in which all the characters (and a few surprises) appear. She starts the play with the King falling asleep while reading, making the central action part of his dream — and then returns to his bedroom at the end. It's a bold, wise choice that makes the epilogue less tacked-on and more meaningful, and prepares us for Joan by discussing her before we meet her: "If you could bring her back to life," Charles quips, "she would burn again within six months."
Most impressive about Saint Joan is how it relates to today's world, nearly a century after Shaw wrote it. "Mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic," says Peter Cauchon, Bishop Beauvais (Gregory Isaac), in the dream, and we see this today in the institutional resistance to Pope Francis's Jesus-like ideas about capitalism and the poor. The church that burned Joan in 1431 is the church that today protects pedophile priests, and still (like most of our world's societies, including our own) restricts and demeans women.
Joan asks, "How long, O Lord, how long?" We still don't have the answers this towering play demands.