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Diogenes “Saint Joan”: From Witch to Saint

Sneak Peek by Prabir Das of Saint Joan: Diogenes Theatre

Sara Clark (Saint Joan) with director Lindsey Augusta Mercer (director)

Sara Clark (Saint Joan) with director Lindsey Augusta Mercer (director)

The Maid of Orléans, as Joan of Arc was nicknamed, was born in 1412 in Domrémy, France. Her story now is legendary: the poor peasant girl, who, at the tender age of 18, heard the voice of God compelling her to take arms for the French army against the occupying English, eventually leading them  to victory at the Battle of Orléans. Later, Joan was captured by the Anglo-Burgundians and eventually was handed over to church authorities where she was found guilty on 70 counts, including witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. Yes, it was an offense for a woman to have audacity to dress like a man. Church authority pronounced the death sentence upon her and Joan was burned to death in public at the Old Market Place of Rouen on the morning of May 30, 1431. But the masses, the common people, knew what she did and what her deeds meant to them. Her popularity began to grow so rapidly after her death that King Charles VII had to order a posthumous new trial of Joan, a trial that cleared her name from any wrongdoings. Almost 500 years later, even the church, led by Pope Benedict XV, had to acknowledge her contribution and courage by canonizing Joan as a saint. The power of the people always eventually wins and upholds the truth.

Inspired by the life and death and sainthood of Joan, George Bernard Shaw, in 1924, published his play titled Saint Joan. Perhaps this was Shaw’s only tragic play – yet a tragedy without any villains. And through the years this play has mesmerized audiences as enacted by numerous theatre companies all over the world.

Diogenes Theatre, the relatively new company who has already marked its bold presence in  its production of Bibi and a few other plays, is now set to bring it to the stage here in the vibrant theatrical city of Cincinnati. Saint Joan has a colorful cast with one of the most talented actors in Cincinnati, Sara Clark, as the lead. According to Sara, enacting this character is as interesting as doing Hamlet, if not more. Sara finds the saint in this play a complete “human” who is also “humanly flawed”. Despite Sara’s forte in enacting Shakespeare on a regular basis she feels challenged in this role. “Shakespeare is easy,”, Sara stated candidly during a recent interview about portraying Joan of Arc.

The director of Saint Joan, Lindsey Augusta Mercer, finds contemporary relevance in this play – the story of which took place nearly six hundred years ago and was written about a century ago. Ms. Mercer says, “Look around and you are still going to find all kinds of injustices against women. Look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign and what she has to fight against.” Lindsey is fascinated to be able to direct this play for three particular reasons, “Shaw, feminism and Sara.” According to the director of the play, it is a “soulful play with intellect.”

Both the director and the lead character are very excited to welcome the audience to this historical as well as humanitarian play. As we were about to conclude the interview, Lindsey invited the audience in advance “to come prepared to be included” in the play because the theatre has been altered and the play would be presented in an arena setting, where the audience would be sitting in a circle, and the actors would enter and exit from all sides right through the seats, appearing almost from within them. And the witty Sara Clark with her charming smile and crisp utterance of every word whispered the following suggestion for the audience: “have a good meal, a cup of tea and pee” before entering the auditorium, because you will be there for a while and  be enchanted by the great spirit of Saint Joan. And I would add, also by Sara Clark and the team that includes Billy Chace, Geoffrey Barnes, Patrick Phillips, Jared Earland, Nicole Smith and Rory Sheridan. Behind the scenes, lighting design is being done by Alan Kleesattel, costume design by Amanda McGee, sound design by Doug Borntrager and set design by Sarah Beth Hall. Brian Isaac Phillips, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s Producing Artistic Director serves as a special consultant on the production, as I was told by the company manager and stage manager for this play, (and a very talented actor himself) Justin McCombs.

Saint Joan opens at Diogenes on February 18th at the Fift Third Bak theatre of the Aranoff Center. There are seven performances scheduled through March 5th with two matinees at 2PM on Sundays. Tickets can be purchased at www.cincinnatiarts.org or www.diogenestheatrecompany.com