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Burning Joan 

The Aurora inaugurates its new space with the story of a brilliant zealot

Wednesday, Nov 7 2001
Joan of Arc burned as a witch when a church inquisition accused her of heresy in 1431, but her image improved over the next 500 years, until the same church canonized her in 1920. Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan shortly afterward. He wrote it as a tonic against the romance over Joan that was current in his time -- the soft-focus notion of a pretty farm girl guided by voices to command the French national army, a prophet-virgin in armor destroyed by the corrupt (and personally offended) functionaries of Rome. "For these slanders of the Church and the Inquisition there is not a shred of evidence in the records of the trial," Shaw wrote in a program note to an early performance of Saint Joan. "She was burnt for heresy because she was guided by her inner light to the position taken two hundred years later by the Society of Friends." She was a proto-Protestant, in other words. The bishops were just doing their jobs. And -- more to the point -- modern leaders of church and state would have passed the same verdict in 1920, faced with another prophet. The burning of Joan wasn't a scandal of corruption and lies, Shaw wanted to say; it was simply the way of the world.

The Aurora Theater inaugurates its new stage in Berkeley with an ambitiously small-scale Saint Joan. In some ways the choice is perfect, since the Aurora did so well by Shaw in its previous home at the Berkeley City Club. Saint Joan is the sprawling masterpiece that wouldn't have fit in the City's Club's tiny room, a tribute not just to a medieval military genius who died in her teens but also a defense of theater, and art, as a kind of prophecy. Shaw identified with anyone who trusted an inner vision ahead of some outside authority. He claimed to write that way himself, from flashes of divine inspiration. This is not to say that he believed Joan got military advice from dead saints. "She must be judged a sane woman in spite of her voices because they never gave her any advice that might not have come to her from her mother wit exactly as gravitation came to Newton," he wrote. The play is a defense of visions and voices as a superrational process, as a fountainhead of art.

Still, it's an awkward show to watch in the months after Sept. 11. Emily Ackerman, who plays Joan in the current production, explained the context to me in an interview: "Joan is jihad. She was fighting a war for God." The French generals were losing badly to the British when she filled their demoralized soldiers with a hot sense of God and country. As one of her prosecutors in the play asks, "What do her victories prove but that the courage of faith, even though it be a false faith, will always outstay the courage of wrath?" That line makes my skin crawl.

Barbara Oliver's production at the Aurora doesn't belabor these overtones. It's a straight, simple show, unsurprising to anyone who knows the script. It's also three hours long and packed with conversation about theology and French politics from around 1430. (There are moments of tedium.) But the core actors in the show are so strong that the behemoth of a play tends to cruise ahead even when you think it's ready to stall.

First, there's W. Francis Walters, who plays both a cringing steward and the Monsignor Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. As the steward he looks like Wallace Shawn, whining and nervous, but as Cauchon he becomes a stern, speechifying, half-deaf prince of the church, with a well-practiced withering gaze. His head quivers as he talks with the beginnings of senile palsy, and his speeches have a grim power. (Cauchon is the one who compares the courage of faith with the courage of wrath.)

L. Peter Callender also does brilliant work as Dunois, "the Bastard of Orleans," and as the Inquisitor. As Dunois he's an eager young general impressed by Joan's innocent fervor; as the Inquisitor he's another thing completely, a wily, aging, cruel, but correct church scholar who condemns Joan without personal malice or even a lapse in courtesy.

Paul Silverman plays a pitch-perfect Dauphin, the rightful king Charles VII, who lacks the guts to claim his crown until Joan insists on it for the sake of France. He's a high-strung, whiny young man in a sacklike outfit and felt head-covering with long strings hanging down: He looks like an excitable teenager in pajamas. Silverman plays him with the right knowledgeable-but-cracking voice, as if he knows he's being pushed around by the bishops and feudal lords of France, but can't help it. (Jeez.)

And then there's Ackerman, as Joan. She always does well as colorfully accented characters, like Prossy in Shaw's Candida or Maggie MacNeil in The Glace Bay Miners' Museum; here she has to play a plain girl whose whole strength is a scrappy but earnest faith in God. With no accent to lean on she sometimes resorts to a high tone that doesn't seem right for a country girl. Her Joan isn't quite as commonsensical as Shaw intended the character to be (or as Shaw was himself) -- but her speeches. Ackerman nails the speeches. The whole play might exist for the climactic tantrum where Joan tears up her apology to the church and essentially throws herself on the fire to avoid the Inquisitor's mercy of a prison sentence. "To shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills. ... Without these things I cannot live; and by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is of God."

The speech is like a strenuous, happy passage of music from Siegfried or a defiant Dylan song: It's Shaw's declaration of independence, which Ackerman renders with a beautiful, tragic, burning zeal.


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