It's a rare and happy occurrence in the theater when an actor literally glows onstage, but if you're anywhere near Stark Naked Theatre Company's home on Spring Street, the iridescence from actress Samantha Steinmetz as Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1923) is unmistakable.
She's as bright and stunning as a sweeping arc light at a movie premiere. Go into the light and be dazzled by her aura. Although augmented by the celestial lighting from ace designer Christina Giannelli, who surrounds or pins Joan in crisp chiaroscuro, Steinmetz is truly lit from within. She carries her own halo. Bring sunglasses.
This radiantly alive actor parlays Shaw's butch maid of Orleans, fighter and dreamer, ultimate martyr, into commonsense revolutionary hero. In a world upended by war, religious strife and the emergence of national identity, albeit a medieval one fractured through Shaw's prism of 1920s England, she's the only rational person around. Though driven onward and upward by the saintly voices she hears through the ringing of church bells, she stands resolute against military bombast, ecclesiastic smugness and royal conceit. She knows her way around a battlefield, too, since she's led by the general of generals, God. Steinmetz's Joan is sweetly innocent, wise-ass, demented and determined, while overflowing with a Biblical prophet's righteous indignation and outrage. Joan is Shaw's ultimate woman: tough, pure, noble, sexless.
Presented by Stark Naked (thank you, Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl, co-artistic directors), Joan is the iconic 2012 inaugural production from the acclaimed New York City theater company Bedlam. This young, innovative company takes classics (like Hamlet or Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility – two other hit shows in Bedlam's rep) and deftly slaps them awake with plenty of attitude and deconstruction. It adds grunge and zing, tossing in bucketfuls of metatheater.
Bedlam likes intimate, reconfigured spaces, limited sets (if any), contempo costuming of jeans and T-shirts, and audience immersion. In the court scene, you're likely to have one of the actors sit next to you, look at you, react to you as he draws you right into the action. In Joan, three actors mix and match characters – Steinmetz stands alone as Joan, inviolate. The impressive trio, all equally bright but with slightly less wattage than the Steinmetz sizzle, comprises Spencer Aste, John Russell and Stephan Wolfert. Sometimes the same character in the same scene is swapped among all three. They borrow each other's accents or physical traits to let us know we're watching the same character but played by someone else. It's inventive, quirky and oil-slick smooth.
Joan is Shaw's epic, a Shakespearean panorama, a DeMille movie with a “cast of thousands.” It's talky and windy, preachy and delightfully witty, as it compresses history into Shavian lecture laced with stirring idealism, philosophical debate and immense theatricality. These accomplished actors not only delineate each of the numerous characters with distinction, so we always know where we are and who they are; they treat Shaw with respect and even homage. The wily curmudgeon is given the kindest, gentlest face lift. This is Shaw with a caffeine jolt. Everyone has something of importance to say – who doesn't in a Shaw play? – but Bedlam never sacrifices clarity for cleverness.
The opening few minutes are the roughest, for it takes time to adjust to what this troupe, under director Eric Tucker, Bedlam's artistic director, is up to. With all the strident screaming and frantic running around, you begin to cringe for poor Shaw. Stop shouting, already, and did that guy who plays the Squire just become someone else? And who's the character with the cassette player? He's not listed in the program. What's going on? It's as if Bedlam throws all its tricks at us at once. We're not so much immersed as submerged. Give us some air! We're floundering here.
But then the miracle occurs. Steinmetz rushes on with all that interior heat and exterior radiance. Joan has arrived. The dust settles as if on command. Although she wears a simple gray dress, something you'd see worn at any Midtown bar at happy hour, her conviction to convince Captain Baudriquot to give her a horse, armor and a few men to accompany her on her mission to see the Dauphin is so crystalline, so right, so Joan that we suddenly find ourselves enveloped in the play. We don't just lean in closer; Bedlam invites us to share its vision of Shaw; and his distinct voice, like those saintly ones Joan so clearly hears, keeps us mesmerized. Suddenly, we're not so confused; the rhythm's been found. With particular lightness, the play soars from then on. Even during the thorniest disquisitions – this is a play about ideas in action – there is an airiness to it. The play shines, too.
Although on the committee's short list previous times, Shaw himself was canonized with a Nobel Prize in literature after the premiere of Saint Joan. Called by some theater pundits his masterpiece, it is that, but let's not forget Heartbreak House, Candida or Pygmalion. But it was a virginal French country girl who pushed the Irish genius into the international pantheon.
Resembling that other theater stunner from seasons back, Kneehigh's Tristan and Yseult (thank you, Alley Theatre), Bedlam's Saint Joan, though greatly pared-down in look and cast, is swathed in exhilaration and uplift. The joy of performing is front and center, close and personal, and everything builds inexorably to a stirring finale. In this company's exquisite hands, Joan is mighty powerful. Afterward, wiping away tears, we, too, hear voices. Is that heaven clapping? Could very well be.
Saint Joan continues through June 18 at Stark Naked Theatre, 1824 Spring Street. For more information, call 832-786-1849 or visit starknakedtheatre.com. $15-$49.