The charismatic Joan of Arc is one of the great historic, religious, military and feminist figures of all time. She has fascinated playwrights and filmmakers as diverse as Shakespeare ("Henry VI, Part I"), Friedrich Von Schiller ("Die Jungfrau von Orleans"), George Bernard Shaw ("Saint Joan"), Carl Dreyer ("The Passion of Joan of Arc"), Maxwell Anderson ("Joan of Lorraine"), Jean Anouilh ("The Lark"), Graham Greene (who adapted the Shaw play for the screen) and Robert Bresson ("The Trial of Joan of Arc").
She has been depicted by actresses as diverse as Maria Falconetti (unforgettable in the Dreyer film), Sybil Thorndyike, Katharine Cornell, Ingrid Bergman, Julie Harris, Jean Seberg and Diana Barrymore, whose mother, poet Michael Strange, "admired Joan above all women" and wanted to name her daughter Joan, but decided it would sound too much like her father, John Barrymore. On TV, we have Amber Tamblyn as "Joan of Arcadia."
Now, inaugurating ArtSpot's theater residency at the Contemporary Arts Center is an original, collaborative project on the soldier-saint with the Moving Humans Performance Group. "The Maid of Orléans: a Joan of Arc Story" is a unique theater event that demands to be seen. In its performances, staging and design, it is aggressively creative, one coup de theatre after another.
Offering a multiplicity of Joans for a multiplicity of viewpoints, its imagination, invention and, yes, stunts, are such that there is always something happening — often several things at once — for the better part of its intermissionless 100 minutes. And for much of that time, one is transfixed.
We begin with Lisa Shattuck as Joan in Limbo, sooty and tattered, wondering "Am I forgotten?" Joan will have to wait almost 500 years between being burned at the stake as a heretic and her canonization. It's a drop in the bucket in terms of eternity, a concept she does not understand. Indeed, Joan is at a loss to comprehend what happened to her and why, and so her life is re-created in representational revue: enacted, sung, danced and physicalized in movement-as-metaphor.
Cleverly, the entrée to Joan's story is accessibly depicted as a TV show ("Lives of the Saints" reads a flashy, projected marquee) which morphs into a kind of Cirque du Jeanne d'Arc as the stories of her voices — Archangel Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch — are satirically depicted, as if by a troupe of traveling players, with "Monty Python"-like emphasis on the endless torments endured by the virgin martyr saints.
The sturdy, agile J Hammons, as St. Michael and Lucifer, does spirited, simultaneous battle with himself, along with other acrobatic miracles, levitating Kathy Randels as she plays the Inner, Spiritual Joan, catching Joans in leaps and falls, dancing the occasional, fluid pas de deux with Randels' Joan and, as the only male in the cast, playing many roles, adding a strong, masculine element.
Beautiful, girlish Anne-Liese Juge Fox is Joan the Maid ("Well, at your age I should hope so," says one of her voices), first clad in blue as a kind of Joan in Wonderland, then in red and finally in male, soldier-ish garb.
Joan's battlefield victories — with spiritual, white-clad Joan waving her banner — are contrasted with flash-forwards to the captive maid Joan in chains, being kept mentally and physically off-balance — literally — on a whirling circular platform, once the main playing area, ingeniously refashioned into a gyroscope by set designer Jeff Becker. It's a brilliant piece of stagecraft. Ladders dot the playing area of the CAC's Performance Warehouse, one becoming Joan's funeral pyre, fueled by the cut-out figures of men killed in battle, on which are projected the flames that consume the 19-year-old "witch."
These hallucinatory video projections, by Courtney Egan, are remarkably effective, whether they're abstract designs, a moon passing across the wall, flashes of lightning, a tree full of birds (a nod to the aviary art in the main gallery?), a dragon, a dungeon window or eerie, moving eyes (evoking the Bunuel-Dali film "Un Chien andalou"). Stephen Thurber's subdued, moody lighting; Sean LaRocca's original music, which includes a haunting, repeated song; the uncredited sound effects and Shawn Hallís adaptable costumes all add to the richness of the whole, and all carry symbolic weight.
The Inner Joan is the first to die, and when the Maid Joan goes up in smoke, her spiritual self awakens and escapes Earth by standing on a swing, pumping higher and higher. It's a transcendent device in a production full of breathtaking moments of surprise.
The creators should tighten "Maid" by 10 minutes or so, trimming the occasional self-indulgences. Randels' running around the performing space, for instance, has been a leitmotif in several of her works. Amid the ingenuity of this staging, it seems arbitrary and stale.
But these are small quibbles amid almost total admiration for what these artists have achieved collectively and individually. If they're not careful, they'll give "performance art" a good name.
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