A Utah Theater Review by Joel Applegate
For serious theater buffs who bemoan the pastiches of Holiday Reviews (holy and secular), as well as yet another iteration of “A Christmas Carol”, the Echo Theatre offers a sacred story for thinkers among you. This is not about the birth of a child, but about the birth pangs of lasting faith. Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson’s painting of the life of Joan of Arc is called Martyrs’ Crossing, and as the title suggests, the plot turns on more than just one exalted life.
First produced at BYU, with subsequent performances in Washington and a reading in New York before arriving at Echo Theatre, Martyr’s Crossing starts out as St Catherine’s story. Using a wonderful plot device, the playwright spools out a spiritual chain stretching back through history. St Joan’s martyrdom intersects with Catherine’s, whose own martyrdom was salved by St Margaret’s. The latter two saints were martyred in the early fourth century, and became the voices Joan historically claimed she heard. Spiritually inspired, Joan secured the liberation of France from the regency of King Henry VI, who at the time was just a boy.
The action begins in a sort of celestial library, neither mortally bound nor of the heavenly realm. Four male narrators – or “historians” introduce the action, then become a part of it as the actors morph into kings, soldiers and clergymen telling “a story you might think you know”. I love the Echo’s space for its intimacy of actor and audience. And these aware actors included all three sides of the seating area, bringing the audience into the story.
Just as compelling as Joan’s story, the dialectic between Catherine and Margaret focuses on guidance, faith and miracles. Their exchanges are surely as interesting as Joan’s story and one of the most telling aspects of the play. There are truly great moments between the actors Anna Hargadon as Catherine and Ronnie Anderson Stringfellow as Margaret. They engage in a fascinating argument over the correct path forward toward achieving Joan’s quest. So much of what’s important about this play is highlighted: the crux of faith, wrestling with decision, guidance becoming dictation. They debate whether, as Margaret says, they should help “smooth her road with miracles”.
Hargadon and Stringfellow are remarkable by turns. As Margaret, Stringfellow touched me contending that Joan must make her own choices. Not even saints can make them for her. I saw in Margaret’s face that she suffered watching Joan’s travails. How thoughtful this play is! In the character of Margaret, Stringfellow poses the wrenching conundrum that duty and compassion do not necessarily require the same action. Catherine’s anguish was clear as she cried for an intercession she knew she could not make. Hargardon’s speech while cradling a doomed Joan took us deeply into her own suffering. As Catherine, Hargadon shows us that in an imperfect woman, there is a firm believer. The writing of this character gives me a sense that Joan already had sainthood within her. In revealing Catherine’s trepidation, Hargadon implies that for all of us.
As Joan, the well-cast Mari Toronto’s contribution is clearly amazing. On meeting nuns for the first time, the young Joan is quaintly reasonable, romanticly innocent, saying “Black seems so solemn for a bride of Christ”. Later, both the writing and the performance shine when Joan declares, “I am not perfect, not above sin”. What a great moment the playwright preserved for us, for here, amidst her suffering, we see that she craves her girlhood again. She is a soul in crises, thrown to the floor, her bare feet become an achingly humble symbol of vulnerability. Toronto approaches the role simply and straight-forwardly, as effectively as Joan herself approached the task God had laid out for her. In a maidenly and strong performance, I believed this actor was a girl in the beginning and at the end, a bona fide – and terrifically human – hero.
As supporting characters the men do well, most playing multiple roles, with the exception of Doug Johnsen as St Michael. Johnsen has just the right degree of authority, but remains beatific. I did think, however, that when Michael restores Joan’s sight near the beginning of the first act, the moment needed to be suspended for just a beat more to make it work for the audience. That said, it’s hard to be both detached and compassionate, but Johnsen’s job directing the other saints in their task requires it, and I was impressed with the result.
The character of Charles the Dauphin, the would-be King of France is played Stephen Geis. Though Joan is his champion, he still shows a prevaricating will. Geis makes clear that this monarch is at first superficial, then shockingly ungrateful. He’s “just a man” he says, plagued by headaches. When Geis says, “there are days when I can do naught but look over my shoulder”, Charles’ court is revealed by Joan’s innocence to be craven and unworthy of her.
Adam Argyle is good as Bishop Cauchon, a man caught in politics who chooses to save his own skin. Just as he sacrifices Joan to the hierarchy, he discovers his faith too late. Warwick, the English lord to whom Joan is “sold”, as played by John Valdez, had everyone in the audience hating him. He did a nice job in a thankless, but necessary role. Though not featured, William Nielson McAllister rounded out the men’s ensemble providing necessary duties as soldier and tormentor, contributing a few moments of excellent sword play that had me holding my breath.
Joan’s costume was very good. In the main, all had great workable wardrobes designed by Lara Beene, which were very believable for the 15th century. Unfortunately, the Bishop’s hat needed a little help. It didn’t look well-constructed and kept falling off. The actor was forced to carry it a couple of times. It behaved more like a troublesome prop than part of a costume. I’d suggest a replacement or use another vestment to indicate the Bishop’s status.
Casey Price’s light design was beautiful, illuminating important moments in Joan’s journey and doing an especially nice job at the end of Act One, and during the execution.
I must give the director, Brighton Nicole Sloan, credit for a number of great choices. Though a preview performance, such as the one I saw, may have some glitches, there were very few, and they never interfered. There was a delay in turning down the house lights at the opening, that almost created a sense of a false start. But once begun, the action used the whole space, and never lagged. The denouement seemed a touch long, and could use some tightening up, whether by the director, the writer, or both. The men in the cast convincingly changed characters with just a couple of costume pieces. The French Dauphin’s imposter scene was handled with great humor. The original music by Echo co-founder, Julianna Blake, was pleasantly ethereal and appropriately used. Great tension was created when Joan, wounded by an arrow, proceeds to remove it herself. And I thought it a brilliant metaphor when a heavy rope was used by the guards like a cat’s cradle to entwine the tortured Joan. It added a macabre carnival edge to Joan’s suffering at the hands of the English. For most of the audience, I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to mention Joan’s death by fire. It was handled so well. Cradled in Catherine’s lap, the lights flickered in flame and shadow across Joan’s face. Coupled with Toronto’s well-measured, heartrending cries, Joan’s suffering vibrated through the theatre. The effect was palpable.
For people of faith, this production is a vehicle of renewal, just as effective as the Christmas Story. I think it is appropriate and inspiring and a nice break from the usual saccharine fare typically offered at this time of year. Several in the audience were visibly moved when the lights came up after curtain call. Ultimately, Martyr’s Crossing is a well written, carefully thought out story about the mysterious, sometimes ambiguous nature of faith, about glory, their power to inspire, and how, where – or whether – we, too, have a part in it.