France, 1429

“Colbert’s co-conspirator in those days was the director and playwright Dexter Bullard, who would call him up and say, ‘Do you want to get in trouble?’ Getting in trouble meant hiring a hall, inviting some critics and then picking a play—something by Havel, say, whom they had barely heard of—and learning it and putting it on in a week or so.” – “How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?

In a way, director/actor Eric Tucker and the three other members of his cast seem to be using Colbert and Bullard’s model; their revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan has all the scrappy charm of a production that costs less than dinner for four at Mamoun’s and took about as long to prepare.  Dates and locations, for example, are painted on the bare white walls to make up for the lack of props and time-appropriate costumes.  Actors announce intermission in lieu of indicative lighting.  Hanging picture frames replace windows.  And Mr. Tucker certainly gets all the use he can out of his space: one scene is performed in the lobby—“We’re going to hunker down here for a bit,” he informs us—while another is acted out in the orchestra, with the audience sitting in fold-out chairs onstage.  Still, there never seems to be a reason for these decisions beyond their novelty.

Furthermore, the small cast juggles what is in fact a rather large play, requiring character changes in the middle of some of the later scenes.  Glasses fly on and off, accents vacillate, and who is who becomes unclear in what should be the dramatic crux of the entire night—the trial of Joan.  This kind of performance didn’t even work when TFANA produced a scaled-down Cymbeline, though there are more yuks in Shakespeare than in Shaw, so the silliness was more forgivable.  Here, it plays as if Mr. Tucker wants to get all sorts of reactions from his audience (laughter, grief, confusion) but never in any cohesive way.  His hamminess is endearing but doesn’t fit with the subdued Andrus Nichols (Joan); his banter with the audience is funny but doesn’t work when he punctuates Joan’s execution by whispering, “Don’t worry, it’s almost over” (though over three hours in the information was greatly appreciated).

All of which isn’t to say that this is a bad Saint Joan, just a lazily conceived one; it felt less like a play than it did a shaky rehearsal.  With more money, more time, and more actors, I have no doubt Mr. Tucker could produce some genuinely good work.

Saint Joan runs through April 1st at the Access Theater.  380 Broadway  New York, NY.

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