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Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlott

Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.

 

Here Comes the Blood

Review: ShakesCar’s Titus

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like a trip to a fish camp on the evening after you’ve savored French cuisine, or a night out watching mud wrestling after an evening of ballet, Titus Andronicus is down-market fare for lovers of Shakespeare, even when compared with the gougings of Lear and the body count of Hamlet. The last time we had a Titus in Charlotte in the summer of 2013, Citizens of the Universe thoughtfully designated a “splash zone” at Snug Harbor, a clear warning that bloodletting would not be genteel, with axes joining the butchery alongside polite poignards. Pointy instruments just don’t cut it when you want to lop a limb.

There’s a clear kinship between the banquet of blood that COTU served up in Snug Harbor’s outdoor patio – above the title on the playbill was “MENU” in large caps – and the current Shakespeare Carolina Titus, adapted by Benjamin Henson, now finishing its second and final week at Spirit Square. COTU founder James R. Cartee had asked Jenn Quigley to be his “Head Chef” and direct orgy of carnage, and this time, Cartee is dishing out the gore himself for ShakesCar in the title role – and on the tech side as lighting and set designer.

ShakesCar’s production at Duke Energy Theater modernizes the setting, and director Chris O’Neill, doubling as costume designer, has his men looking like they are refugees from a motorcycle gang. Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths who will be Titus’s chief tormentor after unexpectedly becoming Empress of Rome, gets a whole bunch of leather herself: the full tight-fitting S&M kit, removeable corset included. Titus’s daughter Lavinia, betrothed to newly crowned Emperor Saturnius until the Andronici are double-crossed, is the colorful opposite of the monochromatic Tamora.

After failing to watch her tongue when addressing her victorious rival, Lavinia gets handed over to Tamora’s barbaric sons, Chiron and Demetrius. What happens next explains how Teresa Abernethy, playing Lavinia, became the poster girl for this gore-fest.

Like Evil Dead the Musical, the show that invented the Splatter Zone, COTU’s Titus winked at the comical aspects of hacksaw horrors, especially since they are more convincingly rendered on film. When the tongueless, handless Lavinia identified her assailants at Snug Harbor, it was a bit like watching a trick pony counting out how old she was. Many laughed out loud.

O’Neill is taking a grimmer view, though it’s hard not to laugh at times. Trusting the text, he and Henson leave the pentameters in place, but they don’t seem to trust the audience’s endurance. Among those missing in action are Titus’s loyal brother, one of Tamora’s sons, and various Andronicus kinfolk. Further cramping the flow, O’Neill divvies out the remaining roles to seven actors, half the number that appeared up in Plaza Midwood.

Probably the most confusing assignment is the double-casting of James Lee Walker II as Bassanius, Saturnius’s brother, and Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover, the first instance of half-colorblind casting I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure anybody in the audience realized that the new emperor had a brother. Then again, Jack Shanahan as Demetrius deflowers and mutilates Lavinia before resurfacing as her avenging brother Lucius at the final bloody dinner. Demetrius, at that point, is dinner.

More confusion was added by the actors. Because this was passionate SHAKESPEARE, they felt compelled to bark, bellow, and bluster instead of merely speaking intelligibly. The Teddy Roosevelt maxim, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” would have been helpful to O’Neill and his players. We had few words, let alone coherent sentences, to work with in helping us to flesh out what was going on.

Kelly Kirk, in her cool seductive take on Tamora, showed the guys how it’s done, slinking around the stage with lubricious malignity, much closer to a purr than a bark when she spoke. Waiting for her comeuppance is a prime pleasure of watching this bloodbath to the end. Abernethy, with her flaming hair and colorful garb, had the look of a rebellious punk teen before her cheekiness backfired. Yes, she looked crushed by her beastly disfigurations, but you may find yourself shocked by her father’s remedy.

At times, there’s a mighty performance buried in the thicket of Cartee’s mangled verbiage as Titus, particularly when his over-the-top inclinations jibe with the warrior’s Lear-like madness. Walker improved toward the end in the Aaron half of his doubling, delivering his most indomitably evil speech with uncharacteristic clarity – though it was curiously transported from the end of the tragedy to a scene or two earlier. Henson and/or O’Neill may not have wished us to keep track of this villain. We do hear of how Tamora is to be dealt with in its rightful place in the final speech.

Amid their fogs of butchered verse, Daniel Brown as Saturnius, Maxwell Greger as Chiron, and Shanahan as Demetrius vividly give us the flavor of these detestable carnivores. Collaborating with Cartee, Greger and Shanahan bleed brilliantly in their final moments as brothers. After those beautifully triggered spurts, we can thank Shanahan as Lucius for dispatching Saturnius. That vile emperor was the last living pustule at the banquet. After his picturesque demise, we’re merrily sent home.

Sorry, I exaggerated that last sentence. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excess.

Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of Chapter Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

Chapter Two 3

As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.Chapter Two 4

George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

Chapter Two 2

A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

Chapter Two 1

Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.