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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Mother of the Maid

Saints like me were the big thing in the 1420's, a time of endless war and plague. Girls were married off as soon as their menses hit and were expected to pop out babies as quickly as field mice to replace the legions of souls that were lost to an early death. Included in that toll, of course, were the girls themselves who died during the rigors of childbirth. It's no wonder that these girls sought refuge from the frights of reproduction through the adoration of a virgin saint.
— Saint Catherine, the martyred virgin who propelled young Joan to legendary fame, and who in Jane Anderson's new take on the famous story also serves as an amusing and distinctly "now" narrator.

Tina Packer (Photo credit: Enrico Spada)
Writers have been drawn to the drama of Joan of Arc again and again. Consequently we're all familiar with the story of the French peasant girl whose saintly visions led to her becoming the triumphant leader of her country's army. The church couldn't save her from being burned at the stake by the Brits but did eventually make her a saint. Now Jane Anderson has taken yet another look at the much done story. While there's no changing Joan's fiery end, the telling this time is from the viewpoint of Joan's mum, and with the Saint with whom young Joan connected, serving as an audience addressing Greek chorus. Her narration and commentary putting an amusing and contemporary spin on the play.

The Greek Chorus twist does lighten the inevitably tragic ending and gives audiences a chance to see decidedly current themes about religion and politics in the ancient tale. But the humor of this Saint Catherine's appearances wears thin after a while, though it is a better showcase for Shakespeare & Company newcomer Bridget Saracino than The How and the Why was.

Anderson has proved herself to be an adept playwright — to wit, our California critic's enthusiastic reviews of her Escort & Looking for Normal and my own review of her splendid adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge . However, Mother of the Maid is too overstuffed and uneven to rank with her best work. What's likely to fill the Bernstein Theater's seats throughout this world premiere's run is the fact that the title character is played by Shakespeare & Company's beloved and always worth seeing on stage founder Tina Packer.

Packer is her usual crowd-charming self, and at the very top of her game during the final part of the second and better act. Packer's frequent acting partner Nigel Gore is also one of this production's strongest assets as the Arc family's acerbic paterfamilias. His Jacques happens to have the kind of common man's common sense smarts to see through the falseness and hypocrisy that will lead to Joan's martyrdom. And Gore does a remarkable job of letting the love for "his girl" and his wife shine through his character's gruff exterior.

Packer's son Jason Asprey plays Father Gilbert who embodies the church's inadequacy in dealing with Joan's situation (Asprey multi-tasks with several other minor parts). The upper classes are represented by Elizabeth Aspenlieder as a well-intentioned, gorgeously outfitted (Bravo Govane Lohbauer for all the costumes) member of the royal court. Aspenlieder gets a few chances to display her comic skills as the kind but clueless one percenter of her day.

Since the focus is on Joan's family there's also her brother Pierre (an excellentNathaniel Kent). Naturally, no matter what the focus, you can't have a play about the iconic "Maid" without someone to play her. While Anne Troup isn't especially impressive early on, she too comes into her own, in the play's heart-wrenching tragic final moments.

I was glad to note that director Matthew Penn has paid closer attention to the difficulties of the Bernstein Theater's 3-sided stage, than Nicole Ricciardi did in The How and the Why . On the other hand, he's counted on Saracino's insistently "with it' scene setters to pave the way for a mish-mash of accents (from authentic peasant to upper class). Given that these characters are all French under siege by England, one can't help finding the Britspeak a bit at odds with what's happening on this stage.

Perhaps this much told tale is worth re-telling from Anderson's point of view. And if she could find a way to fast forward to the emotionally powerful second act, it might even find a life without Ms. Packer and Nigel Gore to bring out the genuinely touching stuff.

Mother of the Maid by Jane Anderson
Director: Matthew Penn Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Lady of the Court), Jason Asprey (Father Gilbert), Nigel Gore (Jacques Arc), Nathaniel Kent (Pierre Arc), Tina Packer (Isabelle Arc), Bridget Saracino (Saint Catherine) and Anne Troup (Joan Arc)
Costume Designer: Govane Lohbauer
Set/Properties Designer: Patrick Brennan
Lighting Designer: James Bilnoski
Sound Designer: Alexander Sovronsky
Voice Coach: Elizabeth Ingram
Stage Manager: Laura Kathryne Gomez
Running time: Approximately 2 1/2 hours including a 15 minute intermission
Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
From 7/30/15; opening 8/07/15; closing 9/06/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/07/15 press opening Theatre: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
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