The young steward to Squire Robert de Baudricourt, military commander in Champagne, sloughs off his master’s inferences as to why there are no eggs in the henhouse at the beginning of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, staged by David Bogdonoff with a cast of 17 at El Cerrito’s Contra Costa Civic Theatre. No one would steal the eggs, the steward asserts; the hens won’t lay because the area is under a spell. Then, he mentions, “The Girl from Lorraine is at the door.”
The Squire wonders why she hasn’t been sent away: “Are you telling me you’re afraid of her?”
“Sir, she is so positive!”
The Maid is, in the play Shaw authored in 1923, three years after Joan of Arc was finally canonized, a positive and very colloquial daughter of the common folk, who butts in among her social superiors to win them over to her crusade to lift the siege of Orleans with the help of God, crown the challenged and despised Dauphin as king, and chase the English out of France.
This she does, with the sometimes puzzled enthusiasm of the Great Men she enlists. The hens of Champagne even begin to lay again!
But though it’s easy to accept a saint’s gifts, and later to be grateful for them, it’s difficult to have someone like Joan around. She must think herself superior; she’s stubborn! All the resentments come out, all the class and gender antagonisms along with them. After she’s gone, her memory can be cherished—but who’d want such a being back among us again?
All this, as Shaw adroitly points out in dialogue between a churchman and a noble warrior, happens in the days before Feudal Man thought of himself as French or English rather than being from his town or village, subject of his local lord and the Church of Christendom. Joan’s revolt from convention is one of the first symptoms of what—for want of better terms—these worthy gentleman agree to call “nationalism” and “Protestantism.”
The remarkable solitariness of Joan—played with marvelous bluff directness and energy by Kate Culbertson—is accented by virtue of the fact that it’s the only female role in the play. Indeed, one of the principal articles of accusation against her at her trial for heresy is that she will not dress like a woman but as a man, a soldier. Her reply is blunt and clear: If I hadn’t, being always among soldiers in battle, or guarded by them in prison, how would they have treated me?
(In like manner, she answers the accusation that “her voices” aren’t those of saints in heaven but those of her own imagination with: How else does God make us hear his wishes?)
Among the men, it’s fair to mention Joe Fitzgerald as the Squire (and, later, the Inquisitor), who helps the action take off with his sanguine “opening act,” showing in good humor what Joan is up against and how she leverages it.
Bruce Moody (who notes he carried a spear on Broadway when the great Siobhan McKenna portrayed Joan) is a sly, feline Archbishop of Rheims; Misha Madison plays the younger, scorned Dauphin Charles (“Charley” to Joan) as a querulous salamander, later, after having been “made a man” by The Maid, a model of a modern king and commander, a real CEO.
Wayne Johnson does a comic turn as the spirit, in a dream, of the English Soldier who hands Joan a simple cross of sticks at the stake, saved for one night every year.
Shaw can be seen as a link between Oscar Wilde and Bertolt Brecht in putting actors onstage who can cast off their specific characterizations for a moment, to become spokespersons—whether orators or wits—who enunciate a point of view for an age, a class, or a type. Here, you see it a little in Joan’s uncanny, too-sharp reality, which transcends time and place, and in the overly familiar, anachronistic sameness of the men of affairs whom she shakes out of their torpor to do great things. And who then, in their pettiness, can’t or won’t protect her, delivering her up to her even more “impartial” accusers.
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 10 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito. $11-18. 524-9132. www.ccct.org.