The works of George Bernard Shaw aren’t performed that much these days. When was the last time you saw a production of “Heartbreak House” or “Arms and the Man”? “My Fair Lady,” the Lerner and Loewe musical based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” doesn’t count.
It’s a little puzzling because Shaw was witty, brilliant, acerbic, gender-friendly, topical and political without being pedantic. The Washington Stage Guild could always be relied upon to have one Shaw play on its schedule. And some years ago at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, we got to see a riotous, smart production of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.”
One of the first plays I saw in my first year in college at Bowling Green State University in 1960 was a production of “Major Barbara,” which had something to do with an idealistic young woman in the Salvation Army, socialism versus capitalism and early 20th-century politics in England. I barely understood a word of it, but I was nonetheless thrilled by the production and the passion the young actors brought to the proceedings.
“There has been a bit of a letdown in interest in doing Shaw’s plays lately, which I think is odd,” said Eric Tucker, founder and artistic director of the cutting-edge Bedlam theater company. “I think sometimes people underestimate the intelligence of today’s audiences.”
Tucker and Bedlam are a part of a surge of interest in “Saint Joan,” Shaw’s unorthodox take on the deeply religious Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, whose rise as a French military leader helped to restore the Dauphin and begin the downfall of the English occupation. Joan is captured by the British, undergoing torture and a debate-fraught inquisition before being burned at the stake.
“Saint Joan” has special significance for Tucker and Bedlam. Back in 2012, Tucker and Andrus Nichols co-founded Bedlam with very little money and an acting crew of four performers — four! — playing all the parts: Joan, the Dauphin, the warriors, the French, the British, the priests and inquisitors and, presumably, the man who lights the fire. They got to work and created a memorable and highly successful version of “Saint Joan,” so successful that it was extended four times.
“I, we, certainly didn’t expect to have success come so swiftly,” Tucker said. “It was a little overwhelming. But here we are. ‘Saint Joan’ was our big success so we’ve brought it back.” “Saint Joan” is now part of the company’s national tour, with four actors playing more than 25 parts and Aundria Brown as Joan of Arc. It comes to a familiar stomping ground at the Folger Theatre from May 12 to June 10. In 2016, Bedlam had a major success at the Folger with a staging of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.”
“We’re talking about a new approach to classical theater,” Tucker said. “Our approach is clean, direct and clear. It’s about the language and the story. With four actors playing all the parts — in this play and all our other productions — something happens to the language. It’s just bound to. The words just sound different and begin to take on additional meaning. And, since we perform in different venues, in terms of size and function, we have an opportunity to create a real sense of intimacy between the audience and the actors.”
The cast of four by now is a Bedlam emblem and trademark, sometimes creating, well, theatrical bedlam of its own. Bedlam has done its own version of “Hamlet,” again with four actors doing all the parts, the number of which is considerable. There’s a Bedlam “Peter Pan” and, by all accounts, an audacious, quick-moving and physical “Twelfth Night,” among other plays in the repertoire.
Bedlam describes its mission emphatically: “Bedlam creates works of theatre that reinvigorate traditional forms in a flexible, raw space, collapsing aesthetic distance and bringing its viewers into direct contact with the dangers and delicacies of life.”
Having no experience of Bedlam style and practice, you can only imagine. Imagine the quick-mindedness, the stirrings between audiences and action. “The audience is often very, very close to the play,” Tucker said. In fact, there will be some audience members sitting on stage during the D.C. performances of “Saint Joan.”
“Our ‘Joan’ is not so traditional,” Tucker said. But there is also a more traditional production on Broadway with Condola Rashad, daughter of Phylicia Rashad.
“To me, we are all about actors, audience and language¸ storytelling. With only four or five actors, you discover the elasticity of the plays. It’s not about making plays shorter, or cutting them, it’s about discovery and perspective,” Tucker said. “It’s also very collaborative. We all listen to each other. I listen to the actors and their ideas. But there comes a point after all the time you spend on this, that you have to let it go, especially as a director.”