trial: De Beaudricourt (Joel Aroeste) is unmoved by
Joan (Hansen) in The Lark.
Tim Raab/Northern Photo
Jean Anouilh, adapted by Lillian Hellman, directed by Patricia
New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center,
through May 13
Anouilh’s 1953 French his- tory play, The Lark, about
a 19-year-old woman whose doubt, ultimately, is the strength
of her faith, couldn’t be timelier. Using the blacklisted
American playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1955 translation, New
York State Theatre Institute’s production tells the story
of Joan of Arc with a flourish of theatricality: multiple
flashbacks and lots of exposition; simple staging on a multilevel
set; and a plot that builds to a climax late in the play,
and then doubles back on itself for a triumphant, yet ironic,
ending. The structure couldn’t serve the story or the theme
better, and in Anouilh, who survived the Nazis in France during
the 1940s, and Hellman, who survived the Republicans in America
during the 1950s, the Maid of Orleans has two master interpreters
to tell Joan’s tale of not surviving cowards and politicos
in early 15th-century France.
Performed on Victor A. Beck’s set, a series of thrusting,
blood-stained platforms on different levels that radiate a
series of gothic arches (a flashback to NYSTI’s excellent
2002 production of Magna Carta), The Lark focuses
on the trial of Joan (Mary Jane Hansen) before a group of
12 inquisitors, priests, soldiers, court women and noblemen.
The set, costumes and lighting are a testament to NYSTI’s
25 years of theatrical excellence: Robert Anton’s opulent
costumes of black and blood-red velvet robes, burgundy and
gold gowns, and baby blue doublets; John McLain’s dramatic
lighting design with shafts of white or fulvous light piercing
through the ever swirling smoke above Beck’s set; and Will
Severin’s velveteen sound design make it seem as though this
show would run by itself sans actors.
The large cast fills the levels of the stage in well-blocked
positions, highlighting the costumes, the lights, and the
sound design well. There’s precision to the gestures and movements,
coupled with a familiarity and comfort to the voices, such
that the stagecraft is a monument to what NYSTI has achieved.
At the heart of The Lark is Hansen’s Joan in her cold
silver tunic and tights. Hansen displays a vocal range equally
adept at creating the higher-pitched teenager beaten by her
father, tormented by her inquisitors or bullied by the Dauphin’s
bureaucrats, and the woman who, standing alone center stage,
creates both halves of the conversation between Joan and the
saints who convince her to lead France against the English.
This is a Joan whom an audience would believably follow, and
reveals a richness in Hansen’s acting.
Equally adept is Sean Patrick Fagan’s seemingly imbecile Charles
the Dauphin, who grins a little like Alfred E. Newman; this
makes the Dauphin’s bumbling in war all the more timely. David
Bunce’s strong Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, Joan’s English
captor with a practical bent, also announces one of The
Lark’s many timelier reminders that politicians often
miscalculate their way into wars their nations pay dearly
for: “Propaganda, my lord Archbishop, is black or white. The
main thing is to say something pretty staggering, and repeat
it often enough until you turn it into a truth.” Near the
play’s penultimate scene—and don’t rush off as Joan does at
her execution at the stake, the only miscalculated blocking/cue
but a crucial one—Beauchamp tells Joan, “I like you. You’re
not one of these politicians who uses words to fight a war.
You’re a soldier, like me.” Though the events happened more
than five centuries ago, and the play was written more than
50 years past, The Lark couldn’t be more up-to-date.