A Broadway Revival of “Saint Joan” Shows the Woman Warrior in a Quiet Key

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) lived through so much of the twentieth century, and so much of his writing remains startlingly up-to-date, that we sometimes forget his Victorian roots. The theatrical tradition he was brought up on was that of nineteenth-century barnstorming. When Shaw directed his own plays, actors would sometimes complain that the business he wanted them to perform was “stagy.” To which Shaw would retort, “You can’t be too stagy for the stage.” “My plays must be acted, and acted hard,” he once wrote to a colleague in a dispute over interpretation. Not that Shaw was unsubtle, or that he wants his performers reduced to mere shouting; no playwright is smarter about building his effects, making his characters traverse a wide range both vocally and emotionally. Shaw is a rich mine if artists don’t hesitate to dig for the ore.

Shaw subtitled Saint Joan (1923) “a Chronicle Play,” a clue to the nineteenth-century genre on which his drama is a Modernist take. Victorian theatergoers knew such plays well. Modeled on Shakespeare’s histories, they treated the life of some famous historical figure in a sequence of tableau-like scenes, not tautly organized in dramatic terms, from early stirrings to final defeat or death. Lavish sets — which in the nineteenth century meant a leisurely pace and multiple intermissions — and storybook-illustration costumes were a perquisite. In the twentieth century, the movies appropriated the genre: Think of George Arliss as Disraeli, James Cagney as George M. Cohan, or Elisabeth Bergner (on stage a famous Saint Joan) as Catherine the Great.

Shaw, being Shaw, uses the genre for his own purposes. Letting his gift for irony pepper his historical sense, he makes Joan both a proto-feminist and a portrait of his heroic ideal of the gifted individual. Along her way from her father’s sheep-cote to victory, and then on to her trial and execution by burning, she knocks against conventional ideas of women’s roles, of class distinctions, of religious dogmas, and of group identity. In order to discuss her, the French bishop Cauchon (Walter Bobbie) and the English general Warwick (Jack Davenport) have to invent the words “protestant” and “nationalist” — concepts which, for opposite reasons, make both men highly uncomfortable. In the midst of the medieval turf war between the natives of France and its English rulers, Shaw sees Joan as a catalyst, precipitating the arrival of the Reformation and the rise of national identities while remaining essentially unchanged herself. But even these changes don’t suffice to save Joan: The play’s famous epilogue demonstrates that, for all the fine words that gushed out when she was canonized in 1920, even our world isn’t yet ready for such an exceptional being.

Though a glorious temptation for actors and directors — the new Manhattan Theater Club revival is the work’s eighth on Broadway since the Theatre Guild gave the world premiere in 1923 — Saint Joan has never been an easy play to stage. Its length and wordiness, its capricious leaps into comedy, its elaborate demands, and its stately progression from scene to scene all have the potential to hinder the fiery magnificence of its greatest moments. More than any other Shaw play, it constantly leads up to speeches and encounters that make Shaw one of the necessary playwrights, but more than any other work of his (save a few late misfires), it often seems to take an unconscionable amount of time getting to those hair-raising moments. It must be cut, but there is always the danger of cutting too much. And it must be “acted hard,” as he said, but the danger of going over the top is equally always there.

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Daniel Sullivan’s production recognizes the difficulties, as one might expect from a director of his long experience, but only erratically succeeds at finding solutions for them. His first unwise step is to frame the action, in Scott Pask’s set, with what look like the pipes of a giant cathedral organ. It adds nothing, and, although it doesn’t hamper movement, it feels cramped visually. Even Jane Greenwood’s costumes, though more brightly varied than the dangling organ pipes, seem to have followed a directorial instruction to keep the pageantry toned-down. The overall atmosphere is somberly low-keyed.

That would do no harm if Joan were there to set it alight, but Condola Rashad, who has shown fine mettle in other roles, comes off here as a strangely cautious, even hesitant Joan. It’s as if she, or Sullivan, had worried more about the risk of overdoing than about the diminishing returns that come with doing less. There are moments — one or two in the court scene with the Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat); another at the end of the cathedral scene — when the fierce Joan emerges, the one who knows her way and will not be stopped. At those moments you think, “Yes, unquestionably, Condola Rashad can play Saint Joan.” And then you mentally add, “So why doesn’t she stop worrying and do it?”

Sullivan has not helped her, or Shaw, by making some very eccentric decisions about the text. “I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body.” I put it to you, female members of Actors’ Equity: If you were playing Joan, would you let the director cut that line? In another of Sullivan’s wounds to Shaw, he has deleted Chaplain de Stogumber (Robert Stanton) from the Epilogue. This riles me particularly because his scene provokes one of the best and most resonant lines in all of Shaw: “Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?”

Against those demerits, Sullivan’s production balances many merits — most notably several strong, well-spoken actors, in key roles, who can and do bring the play’s long rhetorical speeches to powerful life. Even these life-currents, however, remain erratic, because the scenes feel unshaped. A speech flares up magically only to have its energy, unmatched, fizzle out. Patrick Page (Baudricout/The Inquisitor), John Glover (Archbishop of Rheims), Chanler-Berat, Bobbie, and Davenport are among those giving capable performances. But except for Davenport, a newcomer to Broadway, these actors are all known quantities, from whom we’ve seen, and have a right to expect, great performances. Mere capability isn’t enough for a work of Saint Joan’s extraordinary stature.

To paraphrase another Protestant martyr burned at the stake, they should in this play light such a candle in our hearts as by God’s grace could never be put out. The Victorian grandeur that Shaw’s roles demand, and the bravery to give them that grandeur, in our half-hearted time, are needed to make this play live. If employed, they might amaze us by making it seem even more relevant. The Victorian political and religious conflicts that Shaw lived through were every bit as shabby and mean-spirited as ours today. He ignited them with fiery rhetoric so that, by its blazing light, we could see them for what they were.

Saint Joan
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street
Through June 10

Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Condola Rashad Wants to Bring Joan of Arc Back Down to Earth

It’s been nearly a decade since a luminous young actress named Condola Rashad turned heads in Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway premiere of Ruined, the play that earned Lynn Nottage her first Pulitzer Prize. Set in the civil war–ravaged Congo of the early aughts, Ruined cast Rashad — the daughter of Cosby Show alumna and accomplished stage actress and director Phylicia Rashad and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad — as Sophie, a teenager who had been raped with a bayonet and left to die, but didn’t. The following years brought success on Broadway, with Condola starring opposite Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet and earning Tony Award nominations for her performances in The Trip to Bountiful (with Cicely Tyson), Stick Fly, and, last year, A Doll’s House, Part 2.

This spring finds Rashad, 31, returning to Broadway (and MTC) in another iconic, tragic piece: a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Now also familiar to TV fans for playing ambitious assistant U.S. attorney Kate Sacker in Showtime’s Billions, Rashad has been building up her physical and emotional stamina to play the warrior and future saint, whom she has come to regard as increasingly, inspiringly human. Phoning in hours before a recent afternoon preview of Saint Joan, which opens April 25 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Rashad explained to the Voice how Shaw’s historical heroine both speaks to our time and transcends it.

So, Saint Joan. Had you ever imagined yourself in this role?

I know of actors who have lists of dream roles, but I’m an adventurer; the next role is always the role I’m excited to do. At first, I was just excited by the honor of playing Joan of Arc. Then I met with Dan [Sullivan] — I love Dan, and his vision for the piece was so open, and that’s what really drew me in. He had not made up his mind about who she was and who she wasn’t. He was curious, and that’s a good place to work from, especially with this play.

Had you seen the play before, or read it?

No, but I thought that I knew the story. Once I decided to jump on board with the production, I put the play aside and went about it as if I was writing a thesis on Joan of Arc. I studied everything I possibly could about her, and what amazed me was how little, I think, a lot of us know about her — and the information is there. I remember studying medieval times, but I don’t remember spending much time on her, and that separates her from history and puts her in the space of legend. But she existed. I think it’s interesting that this very powerful woman would be underrepresented in the way we study her.

What intrigued you about Joan as a historical figure, and how do you think Shaw captured that?

I’m most excited about playing her as a human being. She was not necessarily unlike other people, but she knew her purpose and served it.  She could lead thousands of people in an army, but she moved them out of love, not fear. This was a young girl who was not formally educated and who wasn’t a very good politician — she wasn’t trying to be one. I think [Shaw] wrote this play with a great deal of respect for Joan and what she went through, but there are no villains in the play; everybody’s doing what they think is best. And that’s a great lesson for the world we’re living in right now: that there isn’t clear-cut bad and good. That isn’t working for us.

Does playing Joan right now — in the #MeToo era, and given our political climate generally — present special opportunities, or challenges?

That is something that, as an actor, I’m aware of, but I don’t think it would be helpful to try to overplay anything because of the time we’re in. If I stay true to the text, when people come and see it, it will resonate with them, especially because of what’s happening now. You never want the piece to become preachy. There is no perfect time — or every time is perfect — to tell the story of a woman who didn’t need permission from any man or any institution to serve her purpose.

Does race play a role, in this moment? You’re a black actress playing a famously persecuted figure, and the company in this production is pretty diverse.

I don’t think we’re actively trying to prove any point. A white actor wouldn’t play Joan of Arc as a white character; she would play Joan of Arc. It just so happens that my culture is my culture, so naturally I bring that to everything, but it’s not something I feel I need to layer on. I think the beauty of having a diverse cast is that it proves we’re storytellers; no matter what the color of our skin is, no matter what religion we may belong to or what our backgrounds are, it’s our job to tell stories in such a way that you follow us.

Are you pleased with the progress Broadway has made in terms of casting actors of color?

Since I was a kid, definitely. I think that every year we move a little bit further ahead, but we still have a ways to go. That’s the world, and that’s OK — we will keep moving.

How about TV? What drew you to Billions?

With television, you don’t have a fleshed-out character when you jump on board. There’s not a beginning, middle, and end like there is in a play. I think my character in Billions was originally written as a male role, and they just wanted a guest star for the pilot. So whatever I brought into the rehearsal room they thought I could utilize, and that was exciting to me.

You’re also in a new film premiering this month on Netflix: Come Sunday, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as controversial preacher Carlton Pearson.

It’s very interesting that Come Sunday is coming out around the same time Saint Joan is happening, because there is a connection. It’s obviously not about a woman staying true to her purpose — although my character is doing that. But the focus is on someone who was branded a modern-day heretic, because he reread the scriptures and developed a new understanding that everybody was loved by God, not just people of a certain denomination or religion. Again, people hold on to divisions because they don’t know what to do without them. I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person, and I have great respect for people who have a love for the divine, whatever they call it. I’m very moved by that connection.

Your mother also started her career in the theater, and has done a lot of great work there in recent decades. Do you discuss projects with each other?

I’m very close to my mom — my dad, too — but we don’t always talk about what we’re working on. My mother inspires me with everything she does. As a kid I knew [acting] was something I wanted to do but watching the way she went about it, her work ethic, how disciplined she is — I learned that focus has to be there. You have a great shot at succeeding in this field if you love the work. If you just love the stuff surrounding the work, the glitz and the glamour, you’re not going to last long.

Are you also working on music? What’s the status of your band, Condola and the Stoop Kids?

What happened is I had created all this music, and then I created that band to perform it. There were certain songs we wrote together, but for the most part I had built an outline for an album with this team in Sweden, and then when I came back, I wanted to put a band together to record it. Now I’m back in my music incubator, creating again, which is exciting. There will be something new.

Could you see yourself performing in a musical?

Oh, yeah — I’ve just been waiting for the right one. I saw Passing Strange when I was in college, and that is absolutely the kind of musical I’d want to be part of.

How is your day-to-day regimen affected when you’re doing eight performances a week? I’d guess that Saint Joan could be pretty taxing.

The play is physically and emotionally — I wouldn’t say taxing, but a lot of work. I’ll be wearing armor, for one thing, so there’s quite a lot of physical strength involved. I don’t know that I knew that going in, but I intuitively started training for the role. So for the past four months I’ve sort of been on my own program, going back and forth between cardio and yoga. Building my endurance.

To get back to lessons for the present, just for a moment: If you could get the president and all the members of Congress to see this production, what would you hope they’d take away from it?

That’s a very interesting question. Hmm. I mean, there are so many things I would hope our current president would take away from this play. But I guess I’d want them to take away from it what I hope everybody would take away from it. I want people to be moved by it, to be inspired by it, to feel a connection to Joan — because Joan had a connection to the source, if you want to put it that way. Again, to her purpose. I think there’s a Joan in everybody. That’s what I hope people take away. That everybody, no matter who you are or what your background is, you have the same potential as the next person for making your own connection to yourself.

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Tragic Lovers Get Teenage Kicks in Romeo and Juliet Revival

The ardor animating the latest Romeo and Juliet seems less the marriage of true minds than the commingling of hot bods. In David Leveaux’s revival at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers, Orlando Bloom, 34, and Condola Rashad, 26, halve their ages to play doomed adolescents caught in the throes of passion, destiny, and hormones. Call it puppy lust.

They make a ravishing pair. Bloom, easily one of Hollywood’s prettiest actors, attempts to rough up his handsomeness with an occasional James Dean sneer. It doesn’t work. Rashad, a tangle of sinuous limbs and opalescent eyes, loses herself in a teenage dream whenever he appears onstage. (So did many young women in the audience, who cheerfully rushed the stage door just as soon as the curtain fell on that desolate double suicide.)

Both leads impress. Bloom has a surer hand with verse than you might expect and a surprisingly unglamorous take on the role: a preening Romeo so in love with his own words and woes that he exasperates everyone around him until Juliet forces him toward maturity. Rashad’s Juliet has a sweetness that risks rotting audience teeth. In playing her so young and innocent, she neglects that role’s cleverness and strength, yet she is that rare actress who can project a sense of innate goodness that isn’t dull or cloying. The supporting cast—which includes Jayne Houdyshell as Nurse and Christian Camargo as Mercutio—is also strong, though varied in their approaches.

Leveaux has populated Romeo’s clan with white actors and Juliet’s with African-American ones. In interviews, he has disclaimed any social or political agenda, explaining that this structure simply allowed him to cast the actors he most wanted. And who would quibble with a stratagem that allows Chuck Cooper, Roslyn Ruff, and Corey Hawkins to play assorted Capulets? But an overarching theme wouldn’t go amiss in this scattershot show, which trades depth of feeling for frisk and distraction.

The action plays out on a largely bare set, dominated by a graffiti-marred fresco and extraneous swathes of sand. When gangs of menacing young men wander on, it looks like some beachy, Italianate section of Brownsville. But the plainness of the design yields to an embarrassment of props and bits of business—a dove, a bell, a flail, a swing, a banana, a bicycle, a climbing wall, a floating bier, a live cellist, balloons, flames, and pillow fights. You might wonder if any room remains for heartbreak and calamity—but, look! It’s that Pirates of the Caribbean guy on a motorbike!

This lively and visually involving production suffers from an almost complete absence of tragic force. Every iteration of Romeo and Juliet has to decide if theirs is a timeless, fated, inexorable love or mere adolescent folly. Here, the pair’s first kiss abounds with puppy lust, the balcony scene is even more adorable. Leveaux retrofits tragedy as YOLO rom-com, so that the latter-act catastrophes barely register. This kitten-cute courtship seems unlikely to drive anyone to the fatal release of poison and dagger. (It seems much more probable that with Romeo exiled they’d simply break up via text message.)

The audience, clapping feverishly, didn’t much mind. So many lives lost and futures blighted. Such sorrow, futility, and waste. But if you hurry, maybe you can get Romeo’s autograph!


Stick Fly Goes Buggy for Broadway

Taylor (Tracy Thoms) has a very nice pair of legs, but she prefers studying creatures with six of them, chiefly musca domestica, the common house fly. Over a long weekend on Martha’s Vineyard at the home of her fiancé Spoon (Dulé Hill), she spends mornings with a net and a set of specimen jars, trapping various insects and scrutinizing their movements. If only such a wealth of close observation informed Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, a broad and vigorous play, somewhat coarsened by Kenny Leon’s sit-com-style direction.

Diamond’s script opens as Taylor and Spoon arrive at the family manse, a festival of wood paneling, stained glass, and the occasional Romare Bearden original. In case the set design doesn’t sufficiently indicate its grandeur, Diamond has Taylor enter raving, “Wow. Holy— Wow.” If any doubt of its splendor remains, Thomas supplements her line with a few wide-eyed takes to the audience.

Soon the demanding family patriarch, Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago Hudson), arrives, followed by Spoon’s older brother Flip (Mekhi Phifer) and his white girlfriend Kimber (Rosie Benton). Already in residence is Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the teenaged daughter of the LeVays’ longtime maid, filling in for her ill mother.

As soon as these characters assemble onstage, a multigenerational cavalcade of secrets and recriminations is bound to follow. If anyone ever went to the beach in this play, you could subtitle this show Other Wetter Cities. Yet unlike Jon Robin Baitz’s play, running a few streets over, you can sense Stick Fly’s revelations days away, telegraphed through indicative gesture and some fateful dialogue.

It’s a shame Diamond and Leon don’t have more just a little more faith in the script, because scattered amid the laugh lines and pulled faces are some truthful emotional moments and a couple of penetrating conversations about class, race, privilege, and responsibility. Similarly, the characters have to volley between specificity and steerotype.

To Leon’s credit, the spectators at the Cort Theatre don’t seem to mind being relegated to the role of “live studio audience.” They supply the laugh track seemingly on cue, offering plenty of “oohs” and “ohs” besides, bursting into applause spontaneously when Taylor cried, “You can kiss my black ass!”

Most of the actors appear to be working very hard, and the results, though exhausting, are never dull. Yet you may find your gaze drifting toward Hill, who nearly manages a relaxed air, and even more often to Rashad, whose Cheryl bears the greatest emotional burden. Strong in Ruined, she’s even better here—clear, precise, and intense, but very rarely showy. Leon encourages her to both jive and shuck (well, corn, but still), and she handles every action with an adolescent’s ungainly grace. The last scene finds her slouched on the sofa, her enormous eyes luminous and wet. Unlike a housefly’s thousand orbs, Rashad has only the single pair. But they’re all she needs.


Ruined’s Women Face a Congo Civil War; Shipwrecked!’s Hero Wrestles with His Imagination

“Do you have a smile?” the madam asks her new employee. “Yes,” the girl answers softly, but she doesn’t display it. So begins the journey into the deepest, darkest disquietude that is Lynn Nottage’s remarkable new play, Ruined, now at MTC in a production from Chicago’s Goodman Theater. The place is a mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once the Belgian Congo and on its way to being anybody’s Congo, cracking apart as rival factions of rebels battle official and semi-official militias. The white colonists, other than missionaries, have mostly fled back to Belgium. The pygmies of the Ituri Forest have virtually vanished, their language kept alive only by a parrot, slumbering under its cloth cage cover at the back of Mama Nadi’s bar, where the liquor supply arrives erratically and the girls, if you don’t use a condom, may give you something you didn’t bargain for.

Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), bar owner and madam, puts survival ahead of everything. As long as she gets paid, she cares no more for the political jargon the rival factions spout than for the vanished pygmy’s half-dead parrot. Nobody talks politics in her bar, and soldiers must unload their weapons before being served. In a rich land full of gold and copper, scarred by what people sometimes call the “African World War,” with Sudan menacing to the country’s north and shadowy nightmares of Uganda and Rwanda hovering to its east, Mama Nadi sees her place as a haven of peace. But wars don’t pause to notice who’s declared what place a haven.

Sophie (Condola Rashad), Mama Nadi’s beautiful but unsmiling new acquisition, is like the Congo in microcosm. A youthful 18, sumptuously attractive and rich in potential—she sings, sews, and does math well enough to keep the bar’s books—Sophie, under this lovely exterior, is all traumas and scar tissue. She has been “ruined”—genitally damaged by the “ungodly things” soldiers did to her with a bayonet. Her friend, Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), transferred into Mama’s care along with her, considers herself lucky by comparison: Abducted and multiply raped by soldiers, rejected afterward by her family and her village for bringing shame on them, Salima still hopes for a reconciliation with her husband. Sophie’s only hope lies in surgery, the money and facilities for which are not even remotely accessible.

While she waits and hopes, the bar’s days and nights slide on, the brutalities inflicted by drunken soldiers and miners blurring into one another. “You’re in the Congo,” says Mama Nadi. “Things slip from our fingers like butter.” Mama Nadi, like Sophie and Salima, has hopes: Her impossible dream is to buy a piece of land that no government can take from her. Her sharp-edged second in command, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), dreams of big-city high life, raising hell when Salima borrows her fashion magazines.

Ruined‘s nominal inspiration is Brecht’s Mother Courage, but the “adventuress” Courage travels with the troops; Mama Nadi, staying put and letting the troops come to her, has equal affinity with Brecht’s earlier rendering of the type, Mahagonny‘s Widow Begbick. The eerie, drifting whorehouse life, coupled with the rowdy intrusions and Mama Nadi’s wearily good-humored way of defusing them, sometimes even evokes the more idyllic atmosphere of the 1950s Broadway musical House of Flowers. Forceful, vivacious, teasingly tough, Ekulona’s Mama Nadi indeed periodically suggests a newly stern, embittered reconfiguration of Pearl Bailey’s Madame Fleur, forced to stare down Kalashnikovs instead of sozzled sailors.

Unlike Mother Courage, whose children are apparently her own, Mama Nadi’s maternity is merely metaphorical. Her “girls” are the waifs and discards tossed to her by the war, her affection for them never standing in the way of business. Where Courage’s rival wooers are a cook and a chaplain, Mama is courted unromantically by two contrasting entrepreneurs (Russell Gebert Jones and Tom Mardirosian), each of whom thinks her business skills would pool well with his. But Mama’s seen too much of male behavior to rush into partnership; being caught in a miserable war does wonders to clarify a woman’s vision. Cannily, Nottage soothes theatergoers’ expectations by giving this aspect of Ruined a “happy” ending, in which nothing really ends and no happiness is guaranteed. Sophie and Salima’s stories end more starkly.

Nottage’s feat, achieved in close collaboration with director Kate Whoriskey, has been to capture, simultaneously, both the place’s drifty, unresisting atmosphere and the deep underlying agonies left behind by the violence that abruptly shoots through it. Seemingly laconic and often placid, Ruined in fact rolls on implacably, building tension that marks and changes its characters. It has the density of lived experience, rare in plays of any era.

Whoriskey’s staging, abetted particularly by Derek McLane’s set and Dominic Kanza’s music, builds on the writing’s richness. All the performances are excellent: Boothe, brashly authoritative, is a revelation; Ekulona, a powerhouse triumph; and Rashad, whose musical and emotional command seem to spring unbidden from her delicate presence, is a major discovery.

Donald Margulies’s diverting Shipwrecked! An Entertainment makes a handy counterweight to Ruined: Its hero’s self-narrated escapades include an extended romance with an aboriginal Australasian woman—the white European male version of tropical life. Louis de Rougemont actually existed; his book, Shipwrecked, has fame of a kind. Margulies lets Louis (Michael Countryman) tell his story without interference, which limits Margulies’s own scope as playwright here, softening the sting of the story’s painful coda and its relevance to our own time.

Instead, through Lisa Peterson’s speedy, ingenious production, Margulies supplies the sheer fun of theatrical storytelling, complete with acrobatic stunts, musical effects, and the inventiveness of two supporting actors, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb, who have to embody everything from a dog and a parrot to an old sea captain and Queen Victoria. Countryman, a fine actor usually trapped in drab secondary roles, seizes this leading-man opportunity with irresistible panache; Grays is heartfelt as his aboriginal love; and Bobb makes such an adorable dog that I’d adopt him as a pet myself if I thought Equity and the ASPCA would approve.