Saint Joan (at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway through May 13)
Do you have three-plus hours for Joan of Arc, i.e., the George Bernard Shaw liberal-individualist version? Believe me, you do. And I have four actors for you: Andrus Nichols (as Joan), Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker (who also directs). This doughty quartet, armed with minimal costume and light and no set to speak of, burn like meteors through Shaw’s meta-historic epic. Oh, for a muse of muslin! Without a flat or a caster, the Bedlam theater company works genuine miracles. Can the unworthy scaffold of the Access Theater bring forth so great an object? Can a cockpit that looks like it’s hosted actual cockfights hold the vast fields of France? You bet it can.
In this brisk, lucid, and (for once, appropriately) declamatory production, Shaw’s uncompromising humanism and unshakeable faith in the power of ideas take the field in glory. Nichols’s Joan has a purity and focus that’s cleansed of all romance, normalized to human scale — she seems to be experiencing the play in real time, not as a manifesto that she’s memorized. That’s not nearly as easy or intuitive as it sounds: Shaw’s worldview is, to a certain extent, a manifesto all modern people have memorized, and the play itself is an exercise in didactic revisionism — or what we’d call today “an Aaron Sorkin production.” (And, with all due respect to that old Shaw-hater and desolationist T.S. Eliot, there’s a place for the bourgeois reformist impulse, both in the world and on the stage.) Around this extraordinarily ordinary woman rotates a small universe of fascinating men, each one prisoner to convention in his own way. (The nearly two-dozen male parts are traded off, with great skill, among O’Keefe, Lewis, and Tucker, three very different performers who harmonize their gifts wonderfully.) Together, these four raise siege engines and battlements of language and argument, and from the top, you can see not only the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Shaw was addressing, but misty points beyond. “Must I burn again?” Joan asks History. Alack, only for another week or so, Maid. Act now, serfs.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (at Classic Stage Company through May 27)
Lord, what hardbodies these mortals be! In Tony Speciale's leg-humping new presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream — something between a college pajama party and the Village's annual Halloween parade — dark-haired Hermia (Christina Ricci) and her blonde opposite Helena (Halley Wegryn Gross) are soon in their skivvies, as are their toned and twitterpated admirers Lysander (Nick Gehlfuss) and Demetrius (Jordan Dean). Each set of rivals here is as alike as Dromios or the Winklevii, and all look to have spent a good deal of time in the Athens chapter of Crunch. Bebe Neuwirth gets the humans in the mood by stripping down as fairy-queen Titania; she doubles as human queen Hippolyta, reluctant bride to Anthony Heald’s buttoned-up, country-club Theseus. (He transforms into seething fairy pasha Oberon.)
What does all the fetishwear, doubling, and doppelgangbanging really mean? Oh, everything and nothing. Speciale (Unnatural Acts) is practicing "spaz Shakespeare" here (lots of silly gesticulation and hip-thrusting), and he doesn't really have a concept: Gags arrive in clumps, and crazy fairywear piles up in giant Goodwill bins of giddy invention. But he sure is having fun, in fitful fistfuls of glitter, especially after he gets the play out of boring old Athens — a preppy, cable-knit dead zone that’s starved of comic oxygen, despite lots of admirable effort — and into the libertine precincts of the fairy-infested forest, where the imp Puck (the great, sleepy-eyed troublemaker Taylor Mac, every move an insinuation) lurks behind every tree, in an ever-changing rotation of outrageous outfits. Ricci holds her own as Hermia, and Gross’s Helena, a sort of cracked sorority girl, is a delight. Their ripped, Xeroxed lovers, Nick Gehlfuss and Jordan Dean, should consider becoming some sort of theatrical wrestling team: Their timing and delivery are excellent (within the strictures of this production’s silliness), but their mere presence, the basic effect of their sculpted plurality and that of their female counterparts, is fantastically lewd. Down the social ladder a bit, Rob Yang gives us a beautifully clueless Peter Quince, self-appointed director of the “rude mechanicals” who strives avidly and foolishly to stage a tragedy for Theseus’s wedding. Steven Skybell first comes at Bottom — the most notorious amateur actor in English literature — with a broad, slightly exhausting dope-dom, but ends in a surprisingly reflective place. And the inimitable David Greenspan, that unique flavor, takes the tiny role of Francis Flute and turns him into a small comic saga of nonplussedness. With its regular departures from the text and general eagerness to sell every scripted moment down the river for a quick laugh, this Midsummer won’t win any awards for interpretation: There’s not much going on under its skivvies. But as sex comedies go, it does more than the bare minimum: It gets you out of the torpid polity and into the woods.
An Early History of Fire (from the New Group; at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row through May 26)
“What's Elvis going to die from, do you think?” asks Danny (Theo Stockman) about halfway through the long, smoky, sodden night that comprises most of David Rabe’s An Early History of Fire. It’s 1962, and Danny’s stoned for the first time, courtesy his rich, ostentatiously sophisticated date Karen (Claire van der Boom), but that doesn’t stop his Midwestern townie pal Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) from taking serious umbrage at the question. Elvis, he explains sterly, is “a happy-go-lucky guy. That's all he does is have fun — he sings songs and gets laid — he don't have a worry in the world.” Jake is committed to keeping his small-town fifties cosmos firmly in place, and that includes Danny, a roughneck with a reading habit, who clearly has his eye on the exit. It’s as plain as the glittery girl on his arm that Danny would rather be off with the elites, “slurpin' martoonis and tearin’ down your friends.” For the men of Early History, like the men of all Rabe plays (Streamers, Hurlyburly), forces beyond their control wait just outside the door: the draft, the war, all the sexual, psychological, and social complexities of a world they’re spectacularly unprepared for. But the director, Jo Bonney, seems a little unprepared for the play she’s taken on. It isn’t Rabe’s best, by far — Early History is a kind of pseudo-memory play that feels more like a catalogue of old journal entries, and none of the characters align meaningfully enough to produce any soul-shuddering effect. (Danny just kind of bumps up against one lost soul after another, until he’s out of souls to bump against.) But there’s also a conceptual disconnect at work here that makes the show a long trudge: Rabe’s rough-slung poetry smacks the walls of literalism with a dead splat. Ever so gently miscast and barren of the sexual urgency and coiled violence that propel Rabe plays, Early History is an ant farm, a cutaway of knockaround life in the precincts of Kennedy America that Camelot never touched. But these knockarounds just knock around. If Streamers was the greenroom where American manhood awaited a sea-change, Early History feels like the retro-themed after-party that just won’t end.
Danny’s reading The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road; he’s scribbling in his notebook; he dreams of freeing himself from the blind-alley life he shares with his still-fresh-off-the-boat father (Gordon Clapp), a windy German Catholic who stood up to the Nazis and won’t shut up about it, even though he can’t express himself in his beloved High German. “In English I am an ape with a stick,” he says, adding, in a reflective moment, “Though I did not intend my life, I chose it.” (Clapp’s character isn’t onstage quite enough to establish a beachhead, but he’s got his moments.) Danny’s haunted by memories of his mother, who dropped dead right in front of him when he was a child, struck down by an illness that had been carefully concealed. Danny doesn’t want anything concealed from him ever again, and, as he discovers, he can and will shoulder aside anyone who blocks his way to clarity. He dreams of giving his dead-ender pals “a Viking funeral,” like one he saw in Beau Geste. But Danny mis-remembers: Gary Cooper died in Beau Geste; he didn’t light the funeral pyre, he was consumed by it. Danny has it backwards: Cooper lights the fire, and he does it, “because he loves them. He burns the fort, he burns his dead friends. I'd like to do that for you guys, you know?” “Except we ain’t dead, Dan,” Jake points out.
But they are dead, of course, as dead as Elvis. Early History is set in a mortal twilight familiar to Rabe fans, and in places, it flirts deeper, more mystical energies. But the Edenic raptures on Catcher and Kerouac feel like a catalogue of Rabe’s formative influences, and the “history” aspects of Early History often feel fundamentally at odds with the “fire,” the irresistible, slightly demonic drive towards art, towards life, towards adventure, and ultimately towards death. “Think about it,” muses Danny, “The things people have burned.” It’s hard to conjure visions of fire in the midst of all this dramaturgical dampness, its flattish dialogue interpretations, its kitchen-table stagnancy. Someone needs to rebuild this fire; done right, it’d be a blaze you’d see from miles off.