In theatre generally, and in Washington, D.C. particularly, it is quite common for theatre companies to take a classic story and update it in with a contemporary lens. Admirable as this may be, too often it seems that artists feel that the simple act of transplanting an old story into a new setting meets their quota of creativity for the moment, and the production has little else to say. I mention this to draw a contrast with Promotheus Theatre’s fantastic production of lesbian feminist standard-bearer Carolyn Gage’s one woman show The Second Coming of Joan of Arc. Directed by Tracey Erbacher and starring Lizzie Parmenter, Joan of Arc bursts with creative imagination at every turn. It is both rooted in its source material and relevant to the gender concerns of our day. It is a thinking, feeling theatre piece that strikes at the heart of what solo performance can accomplish when it is done with precision and spirit.
From the get-go, it is clear that this will be no sentimental morality play about a the Saint. Lizzie Parmenter tromps on to the tiny stage at Dance Place as Jeanne, not Joan, and with no “Arc” suffix, that being an Anglicized version of her father’s name which she chooses not to carry. She weas a gray utilitarian T-shirt and dark cargo pants tucked into black sneakers that resemble combat boots. She plops down her sole set piece, an empty orange crate, and begins to draw a map on the ground of the battle seven centuries ago where she was abandoned (“ditched”) by her own men. Using a single prop, a well-chosen stick that becomes sword, broom, cane, and cross, Jeanne weaves her tale of growing up in an oppressive peasant village, hearing the voices of Saints, and eventually leading France to glory at the head of an all-male army. What she doesn’t see coming is her capture, torture, and ultimate execution at the hands of the same men she fought for.
As she sets the record straight about her brief yet tumultuous life, a second narrative gains steam alongside the first: this isn’t just a story about Joan of Arc. This is a story about all women, especially women who choose to subvert the traditional gender hierarchy. Being a poor queer woman may not get you burned at the stake these days, but the biases and male-dominated institutions that ruled Joan’s life – the church, the military, the patriarchal family – are every bit as dominant in the 21st century as they were in the 15th. Joan of Arc is that rare piece that consistently provokes and entertains even as it is unapologetic about its political point of view.
The Second Coming of Joan of Arc is the fringiest Fringe show I’ve seen thus far: bare stage, one actor, a threadbare design. Even the occasional thundering of the passing Red Line train helped add to the “poor theatre” ethos, which suited this piece just fine. It is a testament how good theatre can be as simple as Shake n’ Bake. One part provocative writing to one part committed acting, together with a splash of politics and a pinch of lyricism. The result is a delicious if slightly salty soufflé that rises with feminism and is best served piping hot.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
The Second Coming of Joan the Arc plays through July 25, 2015 at Dance Place: Hyman M. Perlo Studio – 3225 8th Street NE, in Washington, D.C. Tickets may be purchased at the door or their Capital Fringe page.