By Luis Castilla
The East Los Angeles Department of Theater Arts is masterfully performing the difficult and lengthy play “Saint Joan” by renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw.
The three-hour play chronicles the story of how Joan of Arc helped the French fight off the English during the Hundred Years’ War in the 15th century. Joan was able to accomplish this with the help of the voices of St. Catherine, St. Margaret and the Archangel Michael, which she heard in her head through the ringing of church bells. The voices told her to raise the siege of Orleans and to crown the king of France. Because of her faith and unquestionable trust in God, Joan was excommunicated by Catholic church and then burned at the stake by the English for heresy.
From the first scene of the play, Joan, played by Samantha Megan Atilano, has an extremely optimistic demeanor, as she believes God is guiding her judgment. It is through her optimism and courage that she is able to seemingly perform miracles and convince others to put their faith in God, just as she has. “Joan is a very complex person and if you look at her straight on, she may seem like a very angry person, but if you scratch the surface, you would be able to see just how lonely she really was and how much more there is to her,” says Atilano
Even though the play is more than three hours long, Atilano is able to convey the strength and faith of the real Joan of Arc in every scene she is in. “Honestly, when reading the play, it did not seem very long, and in rehearsals, when you work it scene by scene, it seemed manageable, but I remember when we ran the play for the first time, it hit me just how much energy the role required,” says Atilano.
Director David Laird Scott said this is the longest play he has directed. “This is a difficult play to perform because to be able to play Joan is a very special ability and you need very good actors.”
Atilano said that she had to do a lot of preparation for the role of Joan. “I read a lot of history of Joan. I also received a book from David on different actresses who played Joan and what they’re experiences and thoughts were. Reading the history was most helpful, and that is what helped me develop her into a character,” says Atilano.
“Our theater department has not produced a Shaw play as long as anyone can remember,” said Scott in his director’s note. Performing a Shaw play was a challenge to the actors. “Shaw is something new to me and he wasn’t someone I had heard about until I auditioned. It was a new experience adapting to his writing, and learning from David how to approach Shaw’s material,” says Atilano.
Joseph Darby, who plays Peter Cauchon, said that “Saint Joan” is definitely a difficult play to perform. “Shaw is intelligent. His writings aren’t poetry, but he is a wordsmith. Each word is perfectly crafted. It’s elevated speech. You have to not only understand each word, but know which ones to hit,” said Darby. He had to do a lot of research to truly understand the context of the play, he said, as it is set in the 15th century and the play references many historical events of that time.
“Saint Joan” was written by Shaw in 1923, three years after the canonization of Joan of Arc as a saint. The play references her canonization in its epilogue and asks when the world will be ready to receive saints. Scott likened Joan to other martyrs like Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and even John Lennon. Scott said that when “Saint Joan” was written, it reflected the social issues of the 1920s, but it also reflects the modern world as well.
“Saint Joan” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6, 7 and 8 with matinees at 2 p.m. on Dec. 7, 8 and 9 in the P2 black box theater. Tickets are $12 at the door, $10 for general admission, and $8 with ASU membership at P2-101A. For more information, visit www.elactheater.org or call (323) 415-5333.