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Aurora Theater opens with disappointing ‘St. John’

By John Angell Grant, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 03, 2001

Berkeley’s Aurora Theater opened its 10th season Thursday with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan” in the company’s brand new theater downtown on Addison Street, next to the Berkeley Rep. 

Most strikingly, the new space retains the basic look – and the U-shape, three-quarter seating – of the tiny, former Aurora space at the Berkeley City Club. The difference is that the new theater is two rows deeper, rising up around a slightly larger playing area. It also seats 150 people – nearly three times as many as before. 

Initially watching “St. Joan,” I missed the extreme intimacy of the old space, where all audience members were right on top of the action. But the seats are larger and more comfortable now, and it is rigged with better lighting and other tech equipment. It also has good air-conditioning.  

Shaw’s 1923 play about Joan of Arc propelled him toward the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. 

“St. Joan” is a play about a religious visionary who takes up bloody participation in a political war against overwhelming odds, because God tells her to. It’s an unsettling story in light of recent events surrounding Sept. 11. 

Under artistic director Barbara Oliver, Aurora has given “St. Joan” an uneven production. Shaw’s script is a long, didactic play, divided into seven segments that are short playlets in their own rights. 

The staging quality of these individual playlets varies. Further, the full sequence of the segments hadn’t yet, by opening night, found its larger flow. 

Irish playwright Shaw loathed English playwright Shakespeare. Shaw’s play tells a different side of the war story from Shakespeare’s hyper-patriotic “Henry V” and its famous battle of Agincourt.  

In Shaw’s piece, Joan of Arc responds to Henry’s victories by trying to mobilize the French to kick the marauding English out of France. St. Catherine and St. Margaret give her advice. 

Eventually, Joan rallies the French Dauphin’s failing courage and motivates his fragmented supporters to victory. Then after victory, the country’s jealous political and religious institutions turn against Joan for attracting the hearts and minds of its citizens. 

The quality of the performances varies in this production. Emily Ackerman’s self-absorbed, manic Joan doesn’t capture the character’s charismatic effect on others. The magic doesn’t happen on stage between the players, which the script seems to call for. 

Paul Silverman is an intriguing Dauphin, heir to the French throne. Impish, bullied and withdrawing early on. But later, more arrogant from political success, his character progresses through an amusing arc of different forms of cowardice. 

Bay Area favorite L. Peter Callender is cast in two roles. Initially Callender plays a French battlefield commander stimulated to victory by his personal conflict with Joan. Later he is a fascinating, complex, sour visiting church inquisitor who is trapped in a crippled, painful body. He instigates devious political ploys at Joan’s excommunication trial. 

Soren Oliver has some chilling moments as the intelligent and dangerously single-minded English nobleman Warwick, trying to engineer Joan’s execution out of fear she will destabilize the establishment. 

Gabriel Sebastian Marin is striking in a smaller role as arrogant French courtier Bluebeard, sporting little blue chin whiskers. I found some confusion at times from the double-casting of selected actors in multiple roles in adjacent scenes. 

Truth be told, “St. Joan” is kind of a predictable, wooden melodrama. Joan’s inspiration from God and her repeated call to arms play many times over in the play, seemingly redundant. 

As director Oliver has staged the play, Joan’s injured and insistent self-defense at her trial seems out of character for one earlier transported by God. Here the politics of the hypocritical religious and political institutions make sense in the story, but the character of Joan does not. 

Much of Shaw’s story and many of his characters verge on simple political satire. This one-dimensional, satirical concept is mostly telegraphed in advance to the viewer, and then played out somewhat predictably, in the three-hour production. 

Like much of Shaw’s work, “St. Joan” is an interesting, but talky play – frequently a debate of ideas. But for me, the characters and stories were not humanized in this production as successfully as they were in the Aurora’s wonderful production last season of Shaw’s family-politics debate “The Philanderer.”