Central Square Theater Delivers Fiery ‘Saint Joan’ (5 Stars)

‘Bedlam’s Saint Joan’ Directed by Eric Tucker; Presented by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA through Feb. 8.

The Underground Railway’s utterly brilliant production of “Bedlam’s Saint Joan”, now running at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, makes as persuasive a case as you could find that you don’t need anything more than a great script and a talented cast to produce marvelous theater. Whereas you might think that the sprawling story of Joan of Arc leading the charge to free France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War would require a cast of thousands, just four actors play 24 roles, and rarely is this even a (mild) impediment to the storytelling. Costuming is minimal, with actors donning a hat, changing a facial expression or altering their posture to indicate character changes, and the most sophisticated props in the entire production may be a pair of barely used motorcycle helmets. But this play is as riveting as anything I have seen in my (admittedly brief) stint as a reviewer, and that is a testament to the actors, director (Eric Tucker, also one of the actors) and oh, did I mention that it was written by George Bernard Shaw?

Those unfamiliar with the details of the story of Joan of Arc (other than the burning at the stake part) needn’t worry. The play concisely (and often hilariously) depicts the peasant girl’s meteoric rise to lead the army to victories over the English and to help crown Charles VII, as well as her politically and religiously motivated takedown by the church and state. The play opens with Robert de Baudricourt, Captain of the French royal garrison, cruelly (but amusingly) berating his hapless servant for not being able to find eggs for his breakfast. When informed that his prize chickens aren’t laying because of the siege of Orleans and his refusal to see a certain farm girl known as “The Maid”, he balks at the reasoning. But the servant and another soldier keep insisting, “There’s something about this girl”, and he agrees to see her.

There certainly is something about the girl, as she is guided by the voices of Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael, who she convincingly relates were sent by God to help her reclaim France for the French. He reluctantly agrees to supply her with men and armor to retake Orleans, and voila! the hens begin laying eggs. This is the first in a series of miracles that keeps Joan in the business of advancing her cause and defeating the English, at least until she runs into the combined religious and political machines of France and England, that have neither God nor country in mind as they decide her fate.

The cast is extraordinary, beginning with Andrus Nichols, who despite her husky last-call-at-the-bar voice is perfect as the teenaged Joan. It’s no easy trick convincing an audience that someone who hears voices is not insane, and Nichols is commanding in the role. Edmund Lewis is terrific in the buffoon-oriented roles, and Tom O’Keefe brings a searing intensity to his performances. Eric Tucker (whose features and intensity remind me a bit of John C. McGinley) is masterful in his multiple roles as well as screamingly funny, particularly playing the upper crust Brits. He also frequently interacts with the audience and those touches give the production a genuinely communal feeling.
That sense of community also comes from the “moving seats” – where audience members physically move their chairs – not only between acts but during the show, as the actors re-configure the stage for the next scene. At three hours (with two 10 minute intermissions), you would think the show would seem long, but the action moves quicklu. This is the first must-see show of the 2015 theater season in Boston. Don’t miss out. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/bedlams-saint-joan/