Tag Archives: Robert Brafford

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.

 

As Shakespeare Once Said: “Wanna Make Something of It?”

Theater review: [They Fight]

Posted By  

Scrappy company that they are, Shakespeare Carolina didn’t simply throw in the towel when rights to stage Albert Camus’s Caligula were yanked away. No, as you can see at Duke Energy Theater, they decided to put up a fight – actually, eight of them from a cross-section of the Shakespeare’s work, plays that we’ve seen often in Charlotte as well as a couple we haven’t. [They Fight] is thus a pupu power platter of fight scenes from Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, plus a double serving of Romeo and Juliet.

varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpgecu0e.jpg

 

Conceiving, adapting, and fight choreographing the show, Charles Holmes has a good grasp of the guilty pleasure aspect of what ShakesCar is presenting. We get very little in Holmes’s set-up about what made Coriolanus ripe for his tragic fall and even less about his toxic mom, Volumnia. Nah, we’re going to “skip all that and go to the last three pages.” So Coriolanus fights Aufidius – not exactly as it happens in the text – but we’re spared the details of why they’re fighting. We do get the idea that Aufidius regards our hero as a traitor, and the outcome of his hubris is the same.

Other irreverent quips are sprinkled among the concise introductions. Once the characters strut onto the stage, Holmes’ alterations of the script only became annoying in a more familiar scene, where Edmund’s belated penitence in Lear after he is mortally wounded no longer occurs. Amid the hurly-burly of that brotherly brawl between Edmund and Edgar, which of the women is Goneril and which is Regan only gets clarified when one poisons the other – if you’re already familiar with the script.

But with less than two weeks to hone this fight anthology into performance trim, the cast does well, auguring well for ShakesCar’s upcoming productions of The Taming of the Shrew and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie later this summer. From a fighting standpoint, another fight choreographer or two would help to prevent us from thinking we’re seeing the same thrusts, slashes, and parries over and over. But Holmes and stage director Chris O‘Neill are cagey enough to insert fights, one in each half of the show, that leap outside the swashbuckling envelope.

The first of these is the bout between Orlando and Charles the Wrestler from the opening act of As You Like It, with the imposing David Hayes portraying Charles with full WWWF-style villainy, strutting invincibly and baiting the crowd as he seemingly destroys the hapless Zade Patterson as our hero – to the horror of Amy Hilliard as Rosalind and Mandy Kendall as Celia. Patterson returned in a far more comical turn after intermission as Cloten, the spoiled son of the evil conniving queen in Cymbeline – with as much aptitude for mortal combat as Tim Conway.

David Hensley as Guiderius butchers this arrogant pipsqueak, with Kevin Sario as Guiderius’ brother and Manu Barbe as their “father”/kidnapper looking on. Before tasting Guiderius’ sword, Cloten is also on the receiving end of some badinage about his clothing, so Kendall, doubling as costumer, rightfully drapes Hensley in a dopey, gleaming outfit that underscores Cloten’s foppery. Looks good on Hensley, though, after he emerges victorious.

Sad to say, Kendall and O’Neill had just been asleep at the wheel in the Lear showdown, where that bastard Edmund is not supposed to recognize his legitimate brother Edgar until after he is defeated. Yeah, that Lear scene could stand some rethinking.
IMG_0445
With the second half of [They Fight] rounded out by the classic fencing bout from Hamlet and the famed “Lay on, Macduff!” clash from Macbeth, the show attains heights that the early action can’t match. Pitted against Hamlet as Laertes, Ted Patterson does get his chance to make his confession on the brink of death, while Kevin Aoussou adds the most satisfying portion to the carnage as the justly traduced King Claudius. Holmes makes his most impressive combat appearance as the deluded Macbeth, while the strapping Hayes is more of a Galahad than an underdog as the implacable Macduff.Now the fights from Romeo and Juliet, both presented before intermission, are lively enough – and the second one, Tybalt versus Mercutio, is certainly climactic. But Romeo certainly earns Mercutio’s “both your houses” imprecation with his unfortunate intervention, not a flattering farewell to this great Shakespearean hero. So Holmes and O’Neill have judged rightly in placing these populous scuffles before the break, with Katie Bearden as Tybalt, Robert Brafford as Mercutio, and Andrew White as the peace-loving Romeo.

But why have an intermission at all when your running time totals less than 70 minutes? Three more fights, one less intermission, and two more weeks of rehearsal to sharpen the tech and the combat would make [They Fight] very worthy of a second round. It would be fun – more fun – to see what this show would look like if it were brought back in less haste. While Holmes’ choreography ably simulates the fight scenes of Hollywood action flicks, it would add a little if Holmes and his combatants owned up to the fakery and absurdity of it all. Just once in a while.

Oh yeah, and it would also be nice to see Caligula at the Duke someday. That is, if the sonuvabitch holding onto the rights so tightly would let the show go on.