Saints are tougher to enliven on stage than sinners, and for proof, you needn't look further than the two current productions at Theatricum Botanicum.
While Melora Marshall labors honorably and often eloquently as Joan of Arc, the Botanicum go at George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is, finally, a bit of a chore. Which is not the word that leaps to mind regarding the Botanicum's ongoing, very merry "Merry Wives of Windsor," featuring that winning sinner Sir John Falstaff, along with many of the same actors.
The plays exist in separate worlds, of course. Shaw's 1923 masterwork tends to have a tough time of it in America, unlike the Shakespeare comedy. Though Shaw's wit lightens the historical load, his version of the Joan of Arc story benefits from the sort of visual pomp and stylistic confidence lacking in this production. Staged (as was "Merry Wives") by Ellen Geer, it feels respectful but timid. And with this particular brave soul for a subject, timidity you don't want.
Director Geer starred in the 1964 "Saint Joan" produced by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, a great early success for that regional flagship. Here she directs Marshall, her sister. It's a sharp performance in many respects, smart and crisply spoken. Though on the mature side for this teenage warrior, Marshall's very much Shaw's positive force of nature, as well as a force of a higher power. She's convinced utterly of God's faith in her, and utterly convincing when it comes to mustering faith in others.
For a time, at least. As in Greek tragedy, the burning at the stake of this 15th century "heretic" remains offstage. Shaw's not interested in whomping outrage; he likes to build his case, and get our collective goat, more insinuatingly. He's interested in political maneuvering and moral justifications, provoked by threats to the status quo. In any age.
"Saint Joan" is what you might call a paradoxical classic. Shaw wrote some gorgeous stuff for Joan, but the play's first certifiable chunk of greatness lies in Scene 4, in which a bishop (Milan Dragicevich), a chaplain (Leonard Kelly-Young) and a nobleman (David Ellenstein) decide the rebel's fate. Here, the Botanicum ensemble acting snaps into focus. Too much of the evening, alas, remains blurred. He gets his laughs, but Sheridan Crist's Dauphin falls prey to overeager hamming, as does Earnestine Phillips' Inquisitor and Jim LeFave's Baudricourt. The latter's instincts, serving him well in "Merry Wives," betray him in "Saint Joan"; he plays this early convert to Joan's cause as the single angriest man on the planet, a 15th century precursor to Kirk Douglas.
In his "Saint Joan" preface, Shaw wrote that "marriage . . . with its preliminary of the attraction, pursuit and capture of a husband, was not (Joan's) business: She had something else to do." That something else comes through only fitfully here.
* "Saint Joan," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Road (Highway 27), Topanga. Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 24; Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through Sept. 19. Ends Sept. 19. $10-$17. (310) 455-3723. Running time: 3 hours.