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On trial: De Beaudricourt (Joel Aroeste) is unmoved by Joan (Hansen) in The Lark.

PHOTO: Tim Raab/Northern Photo

Timing and Timeliness

By James Yeara

The Lark

By Jean Anouilh, adapted by Lillian Hellman, directed by Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder

New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, through May 13

Jean 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.

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