This weekend, Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company of Detroit opened its season with a production of “Saint Joan,” by George Bernard Shaw. Don’t be put off by the title – this is as brilliant and witty a play as you’d expect from GBS. But it is about a martyr, so don’t look for a happy ending.
“Saint Joan,” has been described as a tragedy without villains, and indeed, Shaw himself remarked that “There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.”
Like all Shaw plays, this one is essentially about ideas. This adaptation by Matthew Turner Shelton, who also directs, makes Shaw’s ideas about leadership, or the lack of leadership, more assessable to modern audiences. The script is simplified, allowing more contemporary language, and consolidates its characters so that the entire show can be played by a cast of six players, with the five men playing multiple parts.
It’s a timely message. In an era in which so many of our government “leaders” seem incapable of governing, we can sympathize with the eagerness of the French to rally around the Maid of Orleans. Shelton notes that the need for true leaders in Detroit echoes themes raised in the Shaw play. “I want to present a classical piece that is not only contemporary in subject matter, but also appeals to anyone committed to the ongoing battle to maintain historical Detroit, and the growth of its artistic community.”
Shelton’s script edits will be appreciated, if they are noticed at all, by all but the staunchest GBS fans. And this production is true to Shaw’s central message of failed leadership. Innocent Joan, acting on the voices who come from God’s messengers, is the only genuine leader in the mix, because she understands those whom she would lead and her motives are pure.
In the end (and I trust no *spoiler alert* is required here) Joan is burned at the stake because she threatens the titular leaders – the old-boy network. Almost 100 years before Martin Luther, Joan threatens the Catholic church because she fearlessly submits to the direct authority of God and sidesteps the minions of the Church Militant. The newly crowned French King Charles wants rid of her, because she reminds of him of his spinelessness. The landed aristocracy want her dead because she has sparked a nationalist fervor and would have them submit their lands and local authority to the rule of God’s anointed servant – the King. The English want her burned as a witch because sorcery is the only way they can explain a huge military loss to a simple farm girl. And of course, all the men resent the fact that she has forgotten her "place" as a woman and dresses “immodestly” – which is to say, like a man.
Shelton’s pacing is exactly right – not easy when handling Shaw. And he has a marvelous, versatile and hardworking cast. Allison Megroet is the ideal “Saint Joan” – charged with all the unbridled intensity of a true innocent. The other characters are played by Dax Anderson, Jonathan Davidson, Joe Hamid, Keith Kalinowski and Michael Lopetrone. Director Shelton did a splendid job of divvying up the casting here – as each man gets to exercise his chops, playing scenes for broad laughs, poignant tragedy, and those bittersweets moments of self-reflection that Shaw is so good at scripting. (Note – Joe Hamid stepped in at the last minute to take on major roles and worked from a script on opening night. It frankly wasn't a distraction.)
In this adaptation, Shelton skips the epilogue entirely, bringing the show into a much more audience-friendly running time. That said, we can’t resist quoting the final line of Shaw’s original script, which sums up the show so perfectly.
“O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”
This production holds true to Shaw’s implied answer; we are too petty, too greedy, to vain, too small minded to allow true leaders to last long. But with luck – or divine intervention – leaders will arise from the people and take us forward, if only for a time.
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company’s production of “Saint Joan” runs through November 9, 2013. Performances are on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with one matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. All shows take place at the Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette, #113, in Detroit, near the MGM Casino. Reservations are available via phone at 313-408-7269, online, or at the door the day of the performance. Tickets are $18, and discounted tickets are available to Student/Senior/Industry patrons for $15. (A number of tickets are also available on a pay-what-you-can basis at all performances.)
Audience members paying the full ticket price may wish to take advantage of MGT’s “Repeat Offender” offer: If you’ve paid the suggested rate for a ticket and would like to see the show a second, third or fourth time, bring back a customer paying the same rate each time and see it free of charge. Once you see “Saint Joan,” we can well imagine wanting to see it again.