BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
TAMPA — Magali Naas looks as if she were born to play Joan of Arc. Petite and girlish, like a pixie in tights, with a poetic lilt to her voice, she is totally convincing as the martyred French teenager in Gorilla Theatre's production of The Lark. She plays the Maid of Orleans like Leslie Caron in Gigi.
The Joan of Arc story is about a peasant girl who claimed divine guidance in leading the French in victorious battle over the English in the Hundred Years' War, but Jean Anouilh's 1953 play also has a lot to say about contemporary religious fanaticism.
When the Inquisitor (in a superbly menacing performance by Slake Counts) puts Joan on trial and declares her an enemy of God — "She who loves man does not love God'' — you can't help but think of reports from the Arab world in which Muslim clerics condemn women for modernist sins.
Anouilh's reputation has faded since his heyday in the 1940s and '50s, and The Lark is no classic — there's a mosaic quality to its narrative that feels sluggish at times — but director Nancy Cole has assembled a strong cast around Naas and gives the work plenty of power. It has the plodding, byzantine inevitability of one of those costume dramas that used to be a staple of TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame series (which broadcast The Lark in 1957), and is reminiscent of another play from the same era, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials.
Giles Davies is strikingly good as Warwick, the dashingly cruel English commander who provides commentary on Joan as a piece of cultural history. "Yes, it was a grave mistake,'' Warwick muses on the ruling to burn Joan at the stake for heresy. "We made a lark into a giant bird who will travel the skies of the world long after our names are forgotten, or confused, or cursed down.''
Sometimes, the Lillian Hellman adaptation has an unfortunate slap-happy air, as in Joan's referring to the eventual Charles VII, king of France, as "Charlie.'' Christopher Rutherford takes the foppish role of the dauphin Charles and runs it into the ground with a mass of petulant shtick. One of the more amusing scenes comes when he is treated to a courtly dance by three of the women in his life, Queen Yolande (Carol Robinson), Agnes Sorel (Barbara Eaker) and the Little Queen (Katie Castonguay).
Petrus Antonius plays Cauchon, the bishop who arranged for Joan to go on trial and marvels at her "strange conflict of insolence and humility.'' Antonius' performance was a bit recessive amid all the vivid acting around him, and he muffed a few lines last Friday. Curtis Belz has a deliciously sinister turn as one of Joan's accusers, the Promoter. Chris Perez portrays her executioner with macabre relish.
The Lark takes place on an attractive abstract set (designed by Eric Haak), dominated by a long slanted ramp, and the lighting (by Megan Byrne) is excellent. Jennifer Cunningham did the costume design. In a clever touch, props and furniture are moved around by monkishly hooded stagehands.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.