Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PLAY: "Saint Joan of the Stockyards"

Photo/Rachel Roberts

Bertolt Brecht was an intentionally alienating author who saw theater as a means to educate the masses. That makes Lear deBessonet one of those inspirational teachers who lights up a classroom with out-of-the-box activities. It doesn't seem challenging at all: her text, Ralph Manheim's revised translation of Saint Joan of the Stockyard, has dialogue that pops and sizzles, especially on the bloody floor of the meat-market exchange (a primal stock exchange). Her cast, eight talented performers (albeit a few with weak "substitute teacher"-like moments), jump from playing the oppressed to being the oppressors with an eager grace. And her set, sandwiched by the audience, is a juddering industrial strip of thick barrels, swinging beams, suspended chalkboards, and slippery wires. (After seeing this, there's no doubt that Greg Kotis pulled some of Urinetown from Saint Joan, but looking at the design, it seems like Justin Townsend stole the gritty style right back.) It's still a communistic manifesto, but one that's punctuated with snipes at organized religion and mechanized humanity.

The story recasts Jeanne d'Arc, the martyred girl who followed her visions and led a revolution, as Joan Dark, a member of the Black Straw Hats, a religious relief group. While sharing what is more rainwater than soup with the poor stockyard workers, Slift (an oily Mike Crane), demonstrates the base nature of the workers: women like Mrs. Luckerniddle (Kate Benson) sell their outrage for food, while others deceive strangers into doing dangerous work for their own benefit. But Joan, so wonderfully innocent (as played by the excellent Kristen Sieh), argues that baseness has not been shown, only poverty: in this case, "righteous indignation is too expensive." Meanwhile, her rival, the meat-king Mauler, tries to reform his ways, deeply affected by Joan and the no-longer-invisible poor; Richard Toth, who plays this role, manages the sincerity required to validate Brecht's underlying sarcasm, and the righteousness necessary to balance Joan's crusade. We almost agree with him when he says that "money is a way of making things better, if only for the few." Finally, there's the sycophantic Snyder (a melodic Peter McCain), a minister who is quick to eschew the poor when faced with an eviction notice: "If the Lord can't pay his rent, he'll have to move out."

In line with Brecht's style, a variety of effects are used by deBessonet to keep the audience at a distance: Mauler often speaks from a high platform or from within a glass house, and Joan is often seized with an evangelical passion that makes her vibrate across the stage (in the depressing second act, she mourns interpretively in place). There's also a slew of country songs by Kelley McRae that stir up with the masses, clash against the rich, and ultimately ebb into the background with a tender, somber hush. However, deBessonet's high theatrical style actually makes the story more accessible, especially the intimate choice to keep Joan on stage and in character through the intermission, shivering in a tiny sliver of light. Even the dimly lit second act, which makes the wide set into one long cinematic shadow, actually keeps us in touch with our needlessly suffering heroine. The avante-garde isn't eccentric enough anymore, except for perhaps in the harshly satirical conclusion, which crucifies, saints, and distorts Joan all in the same heavily choreographed number.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which marks the premiere of the Culture Project's three-week Women Center Stage festival, is a fusion of culture, politics, high theater, and hip style. The tennis-court staging, cool as it is, does unfortunately obstruct some of the views, and the start of the show is largely underwhelming, as if it's too caught up in the possibilities of the stage as a playground, or confused about what to do with a live musician on the stage. But deBessonet, as she usually does, finds her balance quickly, and delivers a strong adaptation of the dense Brecht, as much a spoon-fed sonata as a dust-dwelling dirge.

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