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Shaw's 'Saint Joan' Comes Alive at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival

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The most famous crossdresser in the history of the world may be a young woman from 15th-century France, a person who arguably has had more words written about her (not to mention paintings, sculptures, and musical compositions) than anyone else.

Yes, we have been fascinated by Joan of Arc for a very good reason: She rose from obscurity to challenge the immense power of secular and religious institutions. She disdained women's clothing and a woman's traditional role while burnishing her image as a courageous and fearless female who refused to take second seat to anyone.

The celebrated Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was similarly affected and wrote the play Saint Joan, which is now on stage at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival in Akron. And it is a production that is well worth the short jaunt down Route 8.

As you may know, Joan was dubbed the Maid of Orleans and was put on trial by the Brits after her exploits on behalf of the French forces during the Hundred Years' War. When she rejected an offer of clemency in exchange for renouncing her beliefs, she was burned at the stake before her 20th birthday. But as a character says later, "Her heart would not burn, she is alive everywhere." And so she is.

It may not be too glib to observe that, if she were around today, Joan would be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Like Greta Thunberg, our teenage climate-crisis Cassandra, Joan could not abide deceit and hypocrisy. And she would not be silenced or impeded from her goal.

Moreover, Joan receives specific and detailed direction from voices that she knows for a fact come from God. She has no need for the trappings of the Church and all its rules and rigmarole when she has a hotline to the Man, Himself. When it comes to having the courage of their convictions, Joan and Greta are a matched pair.

Observed from that angle, Saint Joan has a very contemporary vibe. And this lively production under the direction of Nancy Cates avoids most of the chuckholes this material can fall into, while providing a number of impactful and clarifying moments. Plus swordfights!

That said, even in this lightly abridged version, the layering of religious, philosophical and legal palaver can be, at times, a bit much. Shaw was a man who never settled for one word when 20 were possible, and he wields his prolix proclivities with unstinting ardor.

Of course, the chances for pontification are many, since Joan has a wide variety of antagonists. These include Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (a nicely tight-ass Ryan Zarecki who also plays the stud Lord Chamberlain), the Archbishop of Reims (the splendid actor Brian Pedaci who, in this role and as the Executioner, tends to swallow the ends of his sentences), and Dumois, the Bastard (Joe Pine, admirably intense as always).

The imposing Inquisitor is played by Jim Fippin, who executes a nifty acting grand jete from his earlier portrayal of a lickspittle Steward to become the main man controlling Joan's fate. Double-cast as both the Steward's boss Robert de Baudricourt and as the Earl of Warwick, Terry Burgler handles his chores efficiently but with little clear delineation of the two roles. And James Rankin is most affecting in the conflicted role of John de Stogumber, the chaplain who evolves from fierce accuser to broken man after he witnesses Joan's immolation.

The major comedy relief comes in the persona of Charles, the Dauphin, who is given a stellar turn by Geoff Knox. Charlie disclaims any interest in being an adult in the world, asserting that he chooses not to be a father, a son, a military hero or a leader of any kind. He becomes a work-in-progress for Joan, who tries to implant a functional spine into the amoeba-like Dauphin. And it's a treat to watch Knox slither and slide among all the stalwart dudes in his court as he tries to avoid his responsibilities.

Of course, the key part in this play is Joan herself, and Tess Burgler is more than up to the task. Early on, her Joan bubbles with teenage passion as she wheedles her way up the chain of command, perplexing the older males in power with her unabashed optimism and boundless self-confidence.

But Burgler's performance is launched to another level in the second act, when the captured Joan is tried by church officials. Bruised and slumped on a stool, she essays a dicey three-stage transition from wise-cracking defendant to totally melted-down victim and finally to the ennobled character who lives in our dreams. It's a fine, well-crafted piece of acting.

As an atheist, Shaw pokes fun at the church bigwigs and exposes their corrupt nature. But he also gives them credit for sometimes trying to see both sides, even through the cloud of their dogma, as they try to extend to Joan a bit of mercy.

But those efforts end up strapped to a stake set ablaze, along with our protagonist. While we don't see that conflagration, its effects are apparent in the trembling accounts of onlookers who are sure to be haunted by that event for life — as the Church itself was for eons, before canonizing Saint Joan 100 years ago this May.

Christine Howey, former stage actor and director, is executive director of Literary Cleveland.

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