Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2006
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) made her first appearance as a character in a play within five years of her victory at Orléans in a pageant of thanksgiving staged by that city. Even then, with the Inquisition that put Joan to death still very much in power, and about to become considerably more so in the later decades of the 15th century, the people of Orléans made it publicly clear that they believed Joan’s inspiration was divine. Within 25 years Joan’s conviction was overturned and she was declared a martyr.
Joan wasn’t canonized by the Roman Catholic Church until 1920, and then she was recognized as a saint and not a martyr. As playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) wrote in his program notes to the original production “Elle a été canonisée pour 'l'excellence de ses vertues théologales' et non parce qu'elle est morte pour sa foi.” (She was canonized for ‘the excellence of her theological virtues’ and not because she died for her faith.)
Jean Marie Lucien Pierre Anouilh, one of the major French playwrights of the 20th century, wrote L’Alouette (translated as The Lark) in 1953. By 1955 it was performed in London in an English translation by Christopher Fry, and on Broadway in a translation by Lillian Hellman. Hellman and Anouilh were very different playwrights, and NYSTI has stated that, while they originally intended to perform Hellman’s translation, they decided instead to “adhere more closely to Jean Anouilh’s original text.” So while it is clear that what is on stage here is not Hellman’s version, it is not clear who did do the translation/adaptation.
Joan's career is surprisingly well documented, with several first person accounts of the war as well as the transcripts of the trials. There are two contemporary records of her success at the siege of Orléans. Anouilh used many of these sources, especially the transcripts of the 14-month-long interrogation, when writing The Lark. While Anouilh’s plays cover a wide variety of theatrical genres, at the time he wrote The Lark he was involved with the Existentialist movement, the essential tenet of which is that a person's identity is realized by making choices and taking responsibility for one's actions. Joan says clearly in this adaptation: “What I’ve done, I won’t renounce, and what I am, I won’t deny.”
NYSTI’s Producing Artistic Director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder has provided powerful and focused direction for her large cast. Anouilh used the presentational, nonrealistic form of a play within a play as Joan’s story is enacted in the setting of her trial, and Snyder makes sure that there is an onstage audience at all times, even if it is only one person watching and listening, even if the observers are in shadow.
The success or failure of this play really rests squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing Joan, and Mary Jane Hansen proves she is up to the task. Joan did not live to see her 20th birthday, and NYSTI could have cast an actress closer to Joan’s age, but it really takes the experience that age brings to carry this show and this role. I should hasten to explain that Hansen isn’t THAT old, and that she does present clearly the energy and determination of a teenager. I knew she wasn’t 17-19, but I didn’t care.
Before you all jump on me for discussing Hansen’s age, I want to reinforce the fact that Joan’s age is of the utmost importance. That young people, especially girls around the time of their menarche, see visions and hear voices was a truth as well-known in the 15th century as it is today. I don’t think anyone any older than Joan would have acted on what she believed she saw and heard and was called to do. She acted with all the energy and thoughtlessness of youth, and, if you want to seek a non-spiritual explanation for her success, it would be that her youthful enthusiasm was what inspired the influential men of France to listen to her and give her the army she requested.
The Joan created by Snyder and Hansen is a very likeable and intelligent girl. Her scenes towards the end of the first act in which she convinces Robert de Baudricourt (Joel Aroeste) to give her man’s clothing and safe escort to the Dauphin Charles (Sean Patirck Fagan) at Chinon, and then when she cajoles Charles into allowing her to command the army of France in the Siege of Orléans, are delightful. Aroeste, a NYSTI stalwart, plays what could be a slightly offensive character with a jovial twinkle in his eye, and Fagan embodies the feckless incompetence of the man who probably would never have been crowned Charles VII without Joan’s influence.
Key figures at the trial include Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, (David Bunce) who represented the interests of the English crown in the region of Rouen where Joan was tried, and Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (John Romeo), who had arranged for Joan’s ransom from the Burgundians who captured her during her unsuccessful assault on Margeny. Both are portrayed as characters sympathetic to Joan, but who do not believe in the divine origin of her call. They would rather see her alive than dead, and are among the faction who press her to sign the confession. Romeo is really the second lead here, and he anchors the action in the courtroom with aplomb.
Robin Chadwick is stuck with the thankless task of playing The Inquisitor. Costumed all in black, his is the first face we see on the stage, lit from below amid the puffy pillows of stage fog that infuse this production with an ominous, although hazy, quality. I found Chadwick’s trained stage voice to by singularly monochromatic here, like his costume, and therefore hard to understand. As Snyder and Chadwick interpret him, The Inquisitor is very much a one-note bad-guy character. I wondered if I was supposed to hiss when he took his curtain call.
Shannon Rafferty and Sarah Rogers, as Charles’ mistress Agnes Sorel and his wife respectively, are the only other young women in the play. Unlike Joan, they are both young women of privilege, and, despite their close connection with one of the principle players in the political drama of the time, are more concerned with the latest fashions than with influence they might have on the fortunes of their nation. Both are coy, artless, and loveable.
David Baecker plays Brother Ladvenu and Paul Carter is Captain La Hire (which sounds similar the English word Lyre when given its proper French pronunciation), both staunch supporters of Joan’s even when it was decidedly politically incorrect to be so. The scene between Hansen and Carter as Joan and La Hire is delightful. They almost make war sound like fun!
The imposing vaulted set by Victor A. Becker is adapted from his set for the 2002 NYSTI production of Magna Carta. I did not see the earlier piece, so I didn’t think “Oh, that old thing” when I saw it. Being a recycler at heart I am all for reusing set and costume pieces where appropriate, and this set certainly works here, even though there is a 220 year difference in the time period of the two plays. There is a little more fake fog than is absolutely necessary, but that is a minor quibble.
As Anouilh envisioned, the action takes place on a series of neutral multi-level platforms, and the lighting design of John McLain is integral in carving out and differentiating space and time. The costumes by Robert Anton are suggestive of the late European Middle Ages without being exact. The court dress for Charles, Agnes, and the Little Queen are quite elaborate, while Joan wears a very simple one-piece garment in, of course, white.
As always, NYSTI’s goal is to present educational theatre of the highest caliber, and they have succeeded here. If I were a high school student I would be fascinated by this teenager who changed the course of history and want to learn more about her and her world. Heck, even though I am no teenager and know quite a bit about Joan, I want to learn more! The NYSTI study guide recommends several biographies and Web sites for further reading. I think I will check the catalogues of my local libraries to see if I can acquire some good Joan reading for the summer.
The New York State Theatre Institute production of The Lark runs through May 13 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children 12 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006