Divine politics

JC Longbottom

Acting is a contextual word. Place it in the theater section and one understands acting as performance. Naturally, this show does not want to remove the performance from acting, but also asks that you think about acting in the political sphere; acting out against oppression, against disenfranchisement, against all odds.

Joanie Schulz, the director of the upcoming play St. Joan, might agree. She describes this piece as the story of “someone who acted when everyone called her a fool.” She is referring to the protagonist of her production, Joan of Arc, played by Communication senior Sam Long.

Written by Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw in 1923, it was his response to Joan of Arc’s canonization in 1920. “Shaw wanted to show her moral courage against the system,” Schulz says. “He was concerned people would think of her as saintly – like we do of Mother Theresa – and he believed she meant much more politically.”

Schulz feels the same way. Concerned with the current state of affairs, she says, “I feel really terrible about what is going on in our country. People who act are called fools and sometimes even assassinated, like what happened to Joan.”

In an attempt to do justice to the material and its author, Schulz has directed what she calls a rebellious production. “A lot of people put Shaw in a box,” she says. “He was much more, and I think he intended his work to represent this.”

As a result, she has given the play, in her words, “a youthful edge.” She uses contemporary electronica music to encourage – or possibly subvert – the plot, as well as an intricate circular set design that highlights an oversized throne at the center of the stage. This throne is a kind of theatrical jungle gym; the cast climbs up and down it, reflecting the characters’ anxiety and restlessness, and perhaps the fleetingness of the seat at the top.

This youthful edge was not only a political move, but also an entertainment one. Schulz thought it would make the show more appealing to the college demographic. Communication senior Jordan Cohen, who plays the part of Cauchon, says Schulz breathed “a spark of life” into the production.

Not only has Schulz added energy to the aesthetics of the play, but she also invigorated the actors themselves. She directed them to relate these characters to modern context. “We all came into the process as actors, and then human beings, relating our characters to today, ” Cohen says.

Communication junior Marco Minichiello, who plays the Chief Inquisitor, relates one of the challenges to conveying Shaw’s characters: “I had to try and understand the mindset of a fanatic,” he says.

Understanding these characters, however, did not separate the actors from the content of the play – it drew them closer to it. “The play is a vehicle for content,” Minichiello says.

Schulz conveyed her visions of the play, including her idea of a political angle, to her cast from the beginning. “Joanie talked to us about her vision. She holds some of Shaw’s ideals very closely,” Minichiello says, “especially when considering some of the stances taken recently by the United States.”

The cast, it seems, has embraced Schulz’s passion. “We are telling a story that has been around for hundreds of years; we wanted to make it feel as though it could happen at any time, in any place,” Cohen says. Minichiello also shares this belief. “For me, theater should be more than entertainment. It should deal with ideas that are relevant,” he says.

Coincidently, these ideas sound familiar. Last quarter, director Jon Berry was trying to voice a similar societal concern with his portrayal of Voltaire’s scathing social critique in Candide. Jon Berry also spent time on St. Joan’s set with Schulz.

These Northwestern theater graduate students must be up to something. Perhaps it’s the time, but these young directors seem to share a solidarity with the classic works that preceded them. Not only do they attach an importance to the message of these pieces, they also emphasize their current relevancy.

And what beautiful subversion they have created. They give us fun, while asking us to simply -returning to the duality of the word – act.

Do not doubt, however, the entertainment value of St. Joan. Schulz insists the show is engaging, and the actors also stress the theatrical value of their play. “It is an epic production,” Minichiello says. “It relies on all of its elements.”

St. Joan is playing at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 1949 Campus Dr., April 21-23 and April 26-29. Tickets cost $10 for students, $22 for seniors and faculty and staff and $25 for general admission. Tickets are available online at www.ticketweb.com and at the Theatre and Interpretations Center Box Office.

Weinberg junior JC Longbottom is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]