Joan of Arc’s charisma has only grown since her violent death. As David Caruso ’18 points out in his script, few figures are as well known from the early 15th century. Nonetheless, depicting her is always a challenge. Is she a Saint commanded by the word of God, or were her actions guided by mental illness long before it was understood? Was she a fearless leader, or a frightened 20 year-old doing everything she could to obey the commands given to her? In “Joan,” which was produced by Second Stage and performed in the Patricelli ’92 Theater this past weekend, director Sofie Somoroff ’18 and Caruso carefully walked the line, leaving the audience to decide for themselves who Joan truly was.
That’s not to say that the play wasn’t on her side. Through it, we are inclined to support Joan, even if we do not understand her actions. Scenes from the early 1400s were interspersed with monologues in modern day vernacular. A school teacher and a female character getting tattooed converse casually about how much of a badass Joan was, a moment both hilarious and unconventional in depicting the Saint’s legacy.
In an email, Somoroff discussed how her goals for the show changed over time.
“My first draw to Joan was reading George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan,’ a play that places her in six pivotal moments in her life,” Somoroff wrote. “As my research went beyond Shaw’s work, I became astounded by the different perspective people had on [Joan] and what draws people to her. In the rehearsal room with David’s script, I found I was becoming more interested in what other people thought of her.”
The show was unusually short, running roughly 50 minutes. Afterwards, we are left with snapshots of Joan and the individuals she interacted with, rather than a comprehensive and detailed depiction of her character. Joan is a noticeably static lead role, and the fact that her character undergoes no development or change provided a challenge to the show’s creator. Her obstinance was also the very quality that resulted in her death. However, Celina Bernstein ’18 brought pivotal life to the stagnant role. Bernstein’s eyes occasionally flickered with a hint of doubt while more often expressing the necessary pride of a prophetess. The show also found nuances by way of an ensemble that breathed life into Joan when different characters interacted on stage.
Much of “Joan” felt like an experiment in how to portray history. The show played with anachronism, with modern dialect delivered in period clothing. Cast members engaged with the audience, and it seemed that only Joan was unaware that she was putting on a performance. According to Somoroff, much of this experimentation was carried over from the rehearsal process.
“We changed lines at almost every rehearsal, if an actor had a different idea they wanted to try or if David found lines and moments he wanted to refine. It made the process super collaborative because everyone’s voice was critical in developing the best show, script and all, we could in the three months we worked,” Somoroff wrote.
“We had a pretty major revamp of the script about two weeks before the performance,” Caruso added separately. “[It] was stressful because we were so close to going up, but [it] made the play so much better…We moved the monologues around, and tried to balance the humor in the show (which had been unevenly front-loaded before).”
The results of this workshopping showed. For a play that ended with the arrest and burning of a 19 year-old, “Joan” was surprisingly funny. While Joan herself was unamusing, she was surrounded by caricatures who all reacted differently to her presence. Robert (Doc Polk ’19) bumbled, not knowing what to make of a woman with more charisma than himself, an archbishop (Ryan Dobrin ’18) sneered as he declared that miracles are merely tricks, and an inquisitor (Jacob Casel ’19) practically shook with enraged delight at the prospect of burning a heretic.
Each individual in “Joan’s” cast of five brought unique chemistry to the table, producing an unusually vibrant ensemble overall, as the actors jumped from role to role. Rachele Merliss ’19, in particular, proved to be essential. She alternated between playing characters removed from Joan’s life, each sharing an aspect of her legacy, and the physical manifestation of the voices Joan hears (her lines were backed by a choir of French translations). Much of “Joan” hinges on the relationship between Merliss’s collective entities and Joan, along with our interpretation of what that relationship means.
Every aspect of the play’s artistic design was strong. The set was demoted to a singular, all-important wall of stained glass windows, candles, and chains. Lighting became even more important, distinguishing separate geographic locations as well as subjective and objective realities.
Each night, Eric Poretsky ’18 improvised an ambient score to add the final texture to the show’s atmosphere. Fight sequences were also very impressive, with multiple fully fledged sword fights appearing like precise but violent ballets.
Each scene of the show worked on its own, particularly with the humor, staging, and performances. While, collectively, the scenes occasionally proved monotonous, Caruso interspersed them with wonderfully performed monologues. Certain sequences had each creative element come together in a beautiful way. For instance, during Joan’s trial, the lighting depicted a cross upon the floor. The three Inquisitors stood along the horizontal band, supported by the now imposing wall. Joan, in chains, sat at the opposite end.
As an audience member, I’m still questioning what the whole play means. Our conception of Joan is linear and limited, and the historical legacy of her character is left for us to come to terms with. When Joan is sentenced, we don’t mourn the death of the young woman at hand. If anything, we mourn what she represents: an innocent girl destined for a harsh life, or a peerless heroine cut down before her time. Somoroff chose to end the show just before Joan is set on fire, which makes sense. The Joan we witness is merely a supporting character, an amalgamation of other people’s stories. She was never truly alive.