Searching for Joan of Arc at St. Louis University's Theatre
By Jacob Juntunen
“Saint Joan of Arc” was produced at St. Louis University's department of Theatre from February 27 - March 1, 2020. It cleverly mixed portrayals of Joan of Arc -- from Shaw, to Shakespeare, to Patti Smith -- alongside devised scenes created by its director, Lucy Cashion, the cast, and women who were part of a Prison Performing Arts workshop. The play is ambitious in any setting, particularly with college undergraduates acting, and it is a credit to Cashion that it was so successful.
Joan of Arc is one of the most inspiring figures from history. She is the subject of plays, songs, movies, and even advertising campaigns. St. Louis University's production of “Saint Joan of Arc” juxtaposed a multitude of these works for which Joan was the muse, and asked, “Who is Joan of Arc?”
The answers varied depending on the source, and Cashion and her cast kept the play moving at a quick pace. While Shaw's “Saint Joan” had a heavy place in the play's structure, Cashion created a humorous tone for Shaw's verbose text, and interposed a number of created pieces such as a talk-show and a live rock band. This kept the audience on its toes and entertained.
The solid cast worked as a fluid ensemble, particularly during the play's many transitions, and was boldly led by the impressive Carlee Cosper who played Joan of Arc. Cashion utilized a number of techniques that reminded me of New York companies such as the Wooster Group: post-modern mixes of high and low sources, dance numbers, and live actors mimicking what was happening on screen when the movie “The Passion of Joan of Arc” from 1928 was projected.
The set design by Dan Gideman was simple and effective. The seating was in an alley configuration with a band stand on one side and a screen for projections on the other. There were a number of black cubes that transformed theatrically into everything the production needed. The lighting by David LaRose was just as successful as it moved from a general wash to punk rock concert to dance numbers. The star of the design, though, was the costumes by Lou Bird: each character was dressed in a distressed, black, punk-rock style base with chains and metal accents. For different scenes characters added and removed accents to demonstrate who they were: a crown, a halo, etc. The many costumes remained true to the overall style of the piece, and the technical design was extremely unified.
While the beginning of the show felt aimed at amusing the audience, as it progressed it became more moving. A scene during which Joan is read letters by the Prison Performing Arts group while confined in a cell before her execution was extremely powerful. When the actors mimicked “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the emotions of the beautiful film inhabited the theatre space through the actors. But it was the finale, when Joan was tied to a stake and finally able to define herself that was the most moving.
The program discusses the process of the production's creation and promises that in December 2021 the show will be redone, likely in a revised form, by the theatre companies Equally Represented Arts (ERA) and the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE). I look forward to that production.