Playwright presents compelling questions for audience to explore, argue
|The Side Project Theatre Company presents|
Review by K.D. Hopkins
What is divine inspiration? Is the hearing of voices attributable to schizophrenia or is it that some people are especially attuned to lives on other quantum planes of being? These are questions that swirled about my head after watching this excellent production of Joan’s Laughter. While I no longer agree with Catholic doctrine, I remain in awe of some of the saints’ stories and how they came to be canonized.
The story of Joan of Arc has fascinated me for years. Ever since the film “Saint Joan”, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, was on Family Classics, I was drawn to the issue of what makes a person brave enough to be a martyr. Joan’s Laughter revisits some of Shaw’s assertions of Saint Joan’s hearing of the voices of Saints Catherine and Margaret which evokes the question: what makes a person special enough to be visited by saints and visions?
Meredith Rae Lyons is simply stunning in the title role. Lyons emanates the fervent belief and faith of a patriot and of God without leaning into fanaticism. The physicality of this play is done with amazing agility and realism. As Joan is stripped of her armor and brutalized by the guards, I could feel the defiance and fear trembling from Lyons.
In the roles of the Guards, Edward Karch and Matt Dreier blew me away. Both actors are physically imposing and psychologically menacing. Karch is brutally brilliant as the drunken Guard One. He sneers his lines with a leering smile, projecting sexual menace and sadism. Karch also turns on a dime when he sees a lightened vision of Joan that is dismissed as drunken hallucination. Karch’s physicality changes as he shrinks into himself and takes on the face of one in danger of losing his mortal soul in the presence of an enlightened soul.
Matt Dreier, as Guard Two, is also top notch. His character is driven by revenge for his fallen brother. He holds Joan responsible, berating her for not only stepping into a man’s world of battle but for heresy. Likewise, Dreier’s exchange with Lyons is chilling and visceral.
The performance of Ron Wells as the priest Ladvenu is astonishing. He delivers Juntunen’s dialogue with a smooth and internalized fervor. The language of Catholic salvation is laced with chauvinism and demeans those of the lower classes. Ladvenu wants to save Joan, but within the boundaries of his faith. Wells plays the character as conflicted and in danger of losing his own mortal soul while fearing for Joan’s. His finely sculpted features are reminiscent of a Renaissance painting of the Inquisition. He is perfect in the role.
Rounding out the cast is Jeannie Affelder as the Nun sent to protect the propriety of Joan’s time in the prison. Joan was sent to a men’s prison rather than a women’s jail where her chastity would not be in danger. Affelder pulls of the difficult task of playing a realistic nun. Throughout history, and in a lot of theater, nuns are subservient (and sometimes the comic relief). Affelder infuses the character with fervent belief and confidence. The character entreaties Joan to pray as she does and as Jesus did in Gethsemane, for her physical fate is sealed but her mortal soul can be saved from eternal fire. Their exchange is beautiful and heart wrenching.
The fight choreography is exciting and very realistic. With every blow or drop of a knife you’ll feel as if you are in the middle of the action. The actors are in top form without once going over the top with the thespian haughtiness so ingrained to the genre of tragedy.
The set is gorgeous; backlit with candles and projections of the pyre that awaits Joan. Scenic designer Jacob Watson also did the set for another brilliant production that I had the joy of reviewing, Fucking A from Urban Theater earlier this year (my review). Watson’s use of muted ochre tones and metallic embellishment is brilliant.
Jacob Juntunen’s play evokes some compelling questions that are left up to the viewer to explore (and maybe even argue). What gives anyone the right to deem another a martyr? What is the nature of a miracle or a vision? In the catechism that I grew up with, anyone who died in service of God automatically became a martyr and therefore a saint without question. Joan was found innocent posthumously and then canonized. One tribunal finds her to be a heretic and another beatifies her. This is a play that should be seen and then discussed. The content is rich and the acting is superb.
Joan’s Laughter continues through June 17th at 1439 W. Jarvis (map), with performances Fridays at 9pm, Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $10-$20, and are available by phone (773-973-2150) or online at BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheSideProject.net. (Running time: 75 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Scott Cooper
behind the scenes
Cecilie D. Keenan (director), Jacob Juntunen (playwright), Seven Hill (production coordinator), Kaiser Hamed (sound design), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projections), Rebecca Butler (stage manager), Freddie Rocha (costume designer), Jacob Watson (scenic design), Scott Cooper (photos)