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Sacred Screwball

So: last show of the Shakespeare Festival — now "Shakespeare & Friends" — at New Theatre. Crippling fear gripped this reviewer prior to the event. I had been studiously avoiding the place after a run of ghastly reviews, because you can publish horrible things about a person only so many...
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So: last show of the Shakespeare Festival — now "Shakespeare & Friends" — at New Theatre. Crippling fear gripped this reviewer prior to the event. I had been studiously avoiding the place after a run of ghastly reviews, because you can publish horrible things about a person only so many times before you're due for a curb stomping.

But — George Bernard Shaw! Saint Joan! That's worth a look! There's all that yummy Shaw dialogue, the godless old socialist putting words into the mouths of churchmen and lawmen without a hint of scorn or condescension. Shaw was an affectionate old cooter. He loved everybody, except maybe Irish landowners. But you can bet he'd have made them look good, too, if he'd written a play about them and had them traipsing through the dreams of an aging king in a happy-ending epilogue like he did here with Saint Joan and her inquisitors.

Wherever it is that godless old socialists go when they die, you can bet Shaw is happily appraising New Theatre at this moment. What a play, what a production. Marvelous work from New Theatre, God bless 'em, and you can bet it feels maaarvelous to say that after all this time. Even Frank Rodriguez is damn near wonderful — poor Frank, who has been mercilessly disparaged in these pages over and over with a hellish consistency that might have made you wonder if he'd burned us out of some money or stolen one of our wives or something. He's great here! There are no overblown operatic detonations of grief or love or anything, which was the biggest bane of New Theatre early this season. Rodriguez just sidles into his roles, first as a very reasonable soldier and then as a creepy little churchman filled with crazy, sadistic bloodlust. You can't blame him, though. He's just a product of his time and place. Good old Shaw and his affection. Good old Rodriguez, understanding it and doing it right. Things are looking up.

Do you know about Joan of Arc? If so, great. Even if you've read every book extant on the lady, you're still going to learn something from the way Shaw binds feudal lords and bishops together in a plot to kill her, though what they're really trying to kill is the future (they fail). Shaw apparently saw a correlation between nationalism and Protestantism, and watching him build that argument without seeming to try, and without interrupting the forward momentum of the play, is one of the more entertaining things you can do with your Friday night.

The thing with Shaw is, it's all about these debates — these people with fully fledged and contradictory worldviews launched into inspired flights of dizzying oratory. Shaw's gift was he could inhabit all of these heads at once and see right down to their bottoms. New Theatre's gift, in this instance, is in finding a bunch of people who can follow him there and then get the hell out of the way, letting the ideas do their work. As painted by Shaw's words, these people seem to glow — even Annemaria Rajala's Joan, who historically was a craven lunatic on the order of Jan van Leiden or Osama or Mother Teresa. Choose yer cuckoo. She hears voices and supports this king instead of that one and kills a lot of people who are just doing what they have to do, and even she is slathered in secular Shaw's proto-hippie affection. All of this sympathy is to the good — it clues people into the bedrock emotional and intellectual realities of lives lived before human beings become so blessedly smart.

There are lots of people in this cast, pulling double and triple duty all over the place, and all deserve our love for one reason or another. Rajala has a trillion-kilowatt smile when she's all wrapped up in Joan's godly glory, full of the same disarming, gorgeous certitude that sucks teenagers into the Battle Cry Campaign to this very day. It's easy to get swept up in James S. Randolph's turn as the Archbishop of Beauvais, played with such brimstonian wrath you want to sign on with the guy, until you realize he'd probably burn you at the stake given half a chance (you perverted Miami theater person, you). Stephen Neal's Duke of Bedford is deliciously sly, and Meshaun LeBrone Arnold is uproariously campy as Charles VII, in the least historical and most consistently entertaining portrait of the night. And everybody else is fine too.

So, folks, go see this thing. If you bump into New Theatre's executive artistic director, Ricky J. Martinez, give him a hug. He deserves one. The theater world is a wild and vicious place, and you never know when somebody is going to say something nasty about you for no good reason. It's in these happy moments of mutual competence that we can all breathe easy and get on with whatever it is we're supposed to be getting on with. In New Theatre's case, that's tossing off these masterful, semiclassical bits of genius in an intimate venue and giving smart people something to talk about. In my case, it's packing the seats. If New Theatre is going to keep doing its job this well, I should start brushing up on mine. Run, people. Don't walk.

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