The Shaw Festival of Canada comes to Chicago with a polished, strikingly handsome production of “Saint Joan,” demonstrating with aplomb the value of a company that devotes itself to a playwright’s work over a long period of time. This is fully realized Shaw, from design to delivery, with an ensemble that possesses such a consistent, refined grip on Shavian style that the playing feels unusually unselfconscious. The play itself comes across as intricately intelligent as ever.
Artistic director Jackie Maxwell helms this restaging of Shaw Fest’s flagship production from last May at Chicago Shakespeare. She begins with a large piece of Shaw’s epilogue, depicting Joan in the afterlife learning she has become a saint.
The choice is useful as it provides context — Shaw wrote the play in 1923, only a few years after Joan the Maid officially became Saint Joan. But more than any historical value, the epilogue-cum-prologue allows Maxwell to launch the play with theatrical flair. The opening sequence introduces startling yet simple imagery — such as marching soldiers and a big, starry sky — that establishes a broad thematic and artistic scope.
Even as she gets more straightforward in the trademark Shavian scenes of talk and more talk, Maxwell — with great help from Sue LePage’s sets and costumes — recognizes that Shaw requires complete credibility but not stuffy historical exactness. The scenes here contain imagination and playfulness, as well as passion, along with the expected smarts.
Tara Rosling plays the 17-year-old Joan, and though she’s assisted by Kevin Lamotte’s expressive lighting, she really does put forth her own glow. She’s a true believer among a lot of logical thinkers, and Rosling really gets the fundamental contradiction about Joan that drives the entire play: She’s inspiring, and also a little — OK, more than a little — insufferable. It’s very easy to grasp how the rest of the characters, so passionately reasonable and reasonably passionate, could follow her to the barricades and then root for her burning.
Despite her skill, this really doesn’t come off as a huge star turn for Rosling. The ensemble shines. Ben Carlson — who won a Jeff Award for playing Hamlet at a startling pace last year — deserves special praise for making Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, almost likable, in a pompous, impatient way, as he moves inexorably through Joan’s trial on charges of heresy.
He’s helped by a cast that feels comfortable going to even further extremes, presenting caricatures with just the right dose of recognizable reality.
The luxurious sets contain large pillars that move to establish the different spaces, painted to suggest cold columns and archways but with a purposeful shunning of realism. And the lighting is exquisite in its dark shadows. LePage’s costumes provide the color and a sophisticated expressiveness. The church leaders, no surprise, wear the full regalia that also establishes their political stature, while the pathetic Dauphin (Harry Judge), at the opposite extreme, enters in ill-fitting, slovenly rags. Joan is mostly dressed as a simple soldier, male attire but not ostentatiously so.
It’s not any single element that matters most here, but the ideal blend of it all: the understanding of Shaw’s dry humor and how to invest argumentation with emotion; the simple theatricality of the design work; and, perhaps most of all, the plain trust that the play will resonate with contemporary relevance without needing to define how.
And, considering it contains war, considerations of torture, a deep examination of self-interested power structures, leadership in general and female leadership in particular, “Saint Joan” most certainly resonates.