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Timely Revival ofJoan ofArc inAnouilh's'Lark'

What price does anindividual pay for standing uptoauthority and following the dictates ofone's conscience?

That isaneternal problem, ofcourse. Inwriting his play “The Lark” Jean Anouilh took anincident from the 15th century the burning ofJoan ofArc atthe stake and applied ittothe post-World War IIera inthe early 1950s. Still, itwould bedifficult toimagine atimelier question inthese modern days ofsocial unrest and political protest inMoscow.

Most everything about Zhenya Berkovich's production of“The Lark” atthe Moscow Art Theater iswashed with the colors ofaffection and anattempt atunderstanding. There are plenty ofpeople who could becalled villains inthis story, including Joan's parents, especially her father, who were soharsh onher; the government and church officials incharge ofcondemning her; and the future French King Charles. But inthe context provided byBerkovich most ofthem also emerge asvictims atleast inpart.

What sets Berkovich's Joan apart from everyone isher simplicity ofmind and purity ofintent. Asplayed byMaria Poyezzhayeva, this peasant who heeded the voice ofanarchangel telling her togotowar against the invading British isvery much agirl, not yet awoman. She isprickly, even arrogant, inher relations with others, but utterly calm and grounded inher belief ofherself.

Throughout this performance, Icould not shake the notion that inPoyezzhayeva's performance Iwas watching acollective portrait ofthe young women Isee daily onMoscow's streets. She brings toher role aconfidence, adefiance, anease, and nosmall thing astyle that struck meassupremely contemporary.

Anouilh's play isset upasacollection offlashbacks. Joan's accusers are ready toput the torch toher, but the French Bishop Cauchon (Alla Pokrovskaya) insists onallowing the accused torelive the key moments ofher life. Thus wesee her inencounters with her mother (Natalya Merts), her father (Anton Vasilyev), King Charles (Sergei Medvedev) and others, whose actions have played apart inher arriving atthis moment inher life death byfire atthe stake.

Casting Pokrovskaya inthe male role ofCauchon was asmall act ofbrilliance. Pokrovskaya's strong, but motherly presence adds tremendously tothe warmth ofthis play about condemning ayoung idealist todeath. Pokrovskaya's Cauchon isclearly onJoan's side, ifnot because ofher religious beliefs, then because ofher humanistic convictions. She tries everything she can dotosave Joan, but Joan isnot interested insalvation inthis world. She heard what for her was the word ofGod and that isall that matters toher.

Also prominent inthis interpretation ofAnouilh's play isMedvedev's performance ofKing Charles. First appearing asthe frightened and ineffectual heir apparent, easily manipulated byhis advisors, hetransforms thanks toJoan into amore sensitive and coherent ruler. True, that lasts only apassing moment. When Joan isnolonger anasset tohim, heunthinkingly abandons her toher fate. Medvedev beautifully plays the few scenes that describe the arc ofthis journey from cowering cowardice tovile insensitivity.

Designer Nikolai Simonov created aclean, contemporary set that provides the contrast ofawhite background and colored details such asbright red chairs orred neckties. Video projections including aspeech bythe king and backstage shenanigans asthe story comes toanend remind useasily ofmodern-day television broadcasts orInternet podcasts. Aclothes rack holding the characters' costumes always stands nearby atstage right, reminding usoftwo things, perhaps first that even indeath and political struggle fashion isofnosmall concern, and, second, that all ofthese people involved inthis battle ofwits are, toone extent oranother, playing roles they agreed toplay.

Berkovich's production of“The Lark” avoids bold statements and makes noattempt tobeavoice ofprotest. Itisasmall, cozy work characterized byPoyezzhayeva's constant thin, ironic smile and Pokrovskaya's heartfelt wisdom. Attimes Ifound myself wanting abit more punch from this tale about ateenage girl standing uptoacruel and corrupted world. But, bethat asitmay, the director and her cast gave this play anattractive and intimate human touch.

The Moscow Times
, 24-05-2012


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