Complexity and pessimism meet in this year’s faculty show
Directed by Shelley Liebembuk and assistant directed by Rebecca Yeo, Saint Joan of the Stockyards is undeniably bold and charismatic, an impressive feat considering the script’s parentage. Written by Bertolt Brecht, one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights, Saint Joan embodies his esoteric dream of epic theatre. The characters break the fourth wall, the actors break character, and the seemingly concrete rules of theatre – such as, ‘Hey, maybe don’t scream your lines incomprehensibly’ – are joyfully disregarded. While this sounds messy, it is done purposefully, and it largely succeeds in its didactic aspirations.
Moment to moment, Saint Joan’s biggest strength is its actors. It’s all centred around the bold and assertive Mauler, played with proud gusto by Gabrielle Gagnon. Opposite Mauler is the compassionate Joan Dark, played earnestly by Loryn Losier. Mauler effectively runs the notoriously cruel and penny-pinching meat packing industry in Chicago. Yet, after seeing a cow die first hand, he wishes to leave those cruel factories behind him. Unfortunately, his co-workers won’t let him leave until the ongoing butcher strike has been resolved. Opposite him is the titular Joan. She’s a young soup-kitchen worker who loves widely and recklessly. She throws herself into the middle of the strike, attempting to please everyone, and wins Mauler’s attention in the process.
The narrative here is generally engaging. The broad strokes are usually clear enough: this is good for Mauler, this is bad for Joan, this is good for the soup kitchen, etc. But the details of the narrative tend to get lost in the overly long meat-packing discussions. Additionally, the narrative is generally more concerned with theorizing and explicating capitalist oppression than it is with providing compelling character arcs. This is generally fine, but the play did occasionally feel a bit dry because of it.
Fortunately, the sheer complexity of the issue is compelling enough to bear the entire runtime. Joan gets bogged down trying to convince the capitalist owners to capitulate to the strike, but every second she that wastes worsens the situation for hundreds of thousands of starving workers. Is Joan right to try and change things at the top? Should we appease those in power? Or should the capitalists become victims of their own slaughterhouse? Saint Joan’s narrative begs this kind of critical engagement.
The set, designed by the Motyer-Fancy’s resident designer Nancy Perrin, was relatively sparse and industrial, but it worked. The two most notable parts were Mauler’s office, which was designed like a wrestling ring, and the hanging ropes that cast shadows over the stockyards. The former begs the question of violence, capitalism and performativity, while the latter tangles up the striking workers in an omnipresent, impossible-to-avoid net.
These set elements, paired with the thematically complex narrative and strong performances, gel well into an experience worthy of Brecht. Everything comes to a head in a deeply pessimistic ending, one whose final moments are equal parts chilling and hilarious. Brecht’s eccentricities erupt and force you to reckon with the point of resentful endurance in a crushing and cruel system. It begs many questions: What’s the point of anything? Of this performance? Of any art at all? Can blessed ignorance be forgiven in a cruel world?