Joan of Arc
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
July 10, 2009
It's to Gorilla Rep's credit that they seem not just unconcerned with chaos, but that they embrace it to a degree that few other theatre companies would dare. Case in point: their new production of Joan of Arc, now being performed on a generous patch of lawn in upper Manhattan's idyllic Fort Tryon Park. Traffic roars on the highway below. Random park-goers stop in their tracks to check out the action. At the performance I attended, a jogger ran right through the opening monologue. This seems not to faze them in the slightest...in fact, the company seems perfectly at peace with the random and unpredictable, and trusts the audience to roll with it too. It makes for a pretty refreshing theatre experience, even when the reverse-perfectionism causes some of the things I usually focus on (like acting) to occasionally fall short.
In this new world-premiere framing of a very familiar story by playwright Robert Steven Ackerman, young idealistic Joan leaves behind a life of love and comfort to follow her voices—voices that tell her she has been sent by God to lead an army that will allow the rightful king (Charles VII) to reclaim France from English rule. After achieving an unlikely victory that results in Charles's coronation, she is eventually captured by the English, convicted of heresy, and burned at the stake.
Director Christopher Carter Sanderson clearly wants his audience involved in the story—and he's involved them quite literally, by making them stand up and follow the scenes as they jump among about a dozen locations around the lawn. If this sounds annoying, it's not...in fact, aside from being kinda fun, it proves to be a valuable tool in keeping the audience engaged in the play. It's also a strategy that pays off artistically—the sheer amount of geographical area that's utilized provides the story with an epic scope; but since the audience is always free to move as close to the actors as they wish, it also stays personal and intimate.
While Sanderson's love of happy accidents is highly effective in the broad strokes, it can often come off as regrettable indifference in his work with the actors. Wielding a mammoth cast of 36, Joan boasts many strong performances—but the actors' styles are also wildly divergent, as are their skill levels (the cast boasts Broadway veterans as well as some performers appearing in their first play). Also somewhat disconcerting is the casting of French/Polish actress Aleksandra Yermak as Joan, for whom the language barrier is clearly an obstacle to fully expressing her character. She has a highly engaging presence and is likable in spite of this. However, while I don't begrudge her for the linguistic handicap, it prevents her from being more than simply functional, in a role that demands much more.
Fortunately, Joan of Arc is about more than just the acting (which is, let me say again, pretty good). It's about special moments like having to chase a bell-ringing actor into the darkness to get to the next scene. It's about waiting for an airplane to pass by so the cast can continue the dialogue. And it's about who's in the audience, like that lady with the pink hair who came escorted by her rhinestone-collared pit bull. Many plays claim to be "happenings" but this is the real deal...a production that depends fully on its ever-shifting connection to the audience. You may even leave feeling that, in some small way, it could not have happened without your help.