The Maid Of Orleans
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 14, 2010
In the introduction to his St. Joan, George Bernard Shaw describes Friedrich Schiller's version of the Jeanne d'Arc legend, The Maid of Orleans, as "a witch's caldron of raging romance," dispatching the rival German work by dismissing it as having nothing whatsoever to do with the real Joan at all. In Schiller's retelling, Joan isn't martyred by being burned at the stake, rather she dies valiantly in battle. And far from the no-nonsense Shavian heroine most theatregoers are familiar with, here she's an emotional, ravishing enchantress who has the entire Dauphin's court, most of the English army, and the Duke of Burgundy all madly in love with her. This is, to say the least, a rather unorthodox take on the 15th century teenage clairvoyant who not only practically single-handedly managed to crown Charles VII King of France at Rheims Cathedral, but also foreshadowed the rise of nationalism, the Protestant Reformation, and the kick-butt flicks of Angelina Jolie.
Schiller's idiosyncratic recounting of these events has been eclipsed by Shaw and Jean Anouilh's more widely performed plays, and it would take a production as visionary as Joan herself to make a case for this work. Too bad Demimonde Theatre & Opera Company's FringeNYC offering isn't it. Under direction by Pamela Wilkinson that verges on non-existent, the production undermines any redeeming qualities present in Schiller's text with flat acting, tensionless staging, and the bewildering decision to interpolate musical selections from Vincenzo Bellini's bel canto opera based on Romeo and Juliet into the action. This has the effect of ratcheting up the already-suffocating German Romanticism to uber levels, while prompting this viewer to wonder what events containing actual drama in the 100-minute adaptation had been excised from the presumably much longer Schiller original to make room for the singing.
And because Bellini's Romeo is a "trousers" role for a mezzo soprano, the big love duet between Joan and the English soldier, Lionel, becomes a lesbian literalizing of cross-dressing virgin Joan's traditionally queer subtext. It's unclear whether this was intentional or the audience was just supposed to pretend that Lionel wasn't being played by a woman, but at least I briefly woke up during the same-sex kiss. I also woke up whenever Elizabeth Bove was on stage as Charles's mother, Queen Isabeau, as she brings some much-needed clarity and wit to the proceedings in her all-too-brief scenes. And Gudrun Buhler and Dylan Bandy sing beautifully together as Joan and Lionel. But ultimately, there were more theatrical fireworks between myself and the harried box office manager beforehand in the lobby than on stage. Suffice to say, as Joan herself was to learn from her all-too-brief life, some battles aren't worth winning.