PART OF CHICAGO THEATRE WEEK 2018
“But why ‘Viva La Vida?'” asked Gwen, as they exited the Prop Thtr’s claustrophilic theatre space. An instrumental cover of the song had played during the play’s final moments.
“Why not Viva La Vida?” Dania asked, with a grin. “They were playing current pop songs before the show started, it’s clearly not going for an accurate time period setting.”
“Do you mean in the design or in the aesthetic generally?” Eleanor asked. “Because the design was pretty classical, to a point.”
“Well, I mean,” Dania began, with a shrug. “Mr. Evil Voice had his big red monk robe, that was pretty accurate to the time period. As far as I know.”
“Most of the design was accurate,” Gwen said, before stopping to clarify herself. “Costuming, at least. It’s difficult to judge the dramaturgical accuracy of two wooden boxes – unless you say that the projection screen and the brick walls count as set design.”
“I thought they did,” Eleanor said. “I mean, there’s nothing they can really do about the brick walls, that’s just what the theatre looks like. But it sort of made the whole show feel like it was in a prison.”
“And the projector?” Dania asked.
Eleanor merely threw her arms up. “Well, it’s not accurate, but it wasn’t that distracting.”
“You didn’t think it was distracting?” Gwen asked.
“Not really,” Eleanor said. “I mean, most of the time it was just one image for an entire scene. It ‘s not like they were using it for video or tracking shots or anything like that.”
“True,” Gwen said. “I suppose I’m just not a fan of projection design where the thought is, ‘oh, this is the scene where she gets hung, we will indicate this by putting a picture of a noose over the stage…'”
“But Gwen,” Dania added. “If you don’t put the noose there, people might mistake the Saints holding out Joan’s foot for any number of things. Helping her up a ladder, teaching her to walk…”
“Giving her a pedicure with the help of an invisible third Saint…” Eleanor chuckled.
“I mean, you laugh, but…” Dania’s lips tightened. “Weirder things happen in the play.”
“What did you think of having the Saints be played by physical actors?” Gwen asked.
“I loved it,” Eleanor responded.
Dania smiled. “What, as opposed to non-physical actors?”
“As opposed to voice overs, or simply having them in Joan’s head,” Gwen clarified.
“But that wouldn’t have worked for the show,” Eleanor said. “I mean, think about how much Joan gets dragged along by the Saints through the timelines. You try to do that with voice over, it’s going to get confusing, really fast.”
“Well…” Dania glanced off to the side. “It’s already pretty confusing, if you ask me.”
“Were you having difficulty following it?” Gwen asked.
“I mean, it took a few minutes,” Dania said. “Like, I knew when we started that the blob person under the blanket was probably Joan. But I didn’t know what was going on for the entire scene between the fratty jail bros.”
Eleanor, laughing at the phrase, clarified: “you mean Turner and Johnson?”
“I don’t know their names,” Dania said, her eyes wide. “The one who looked like he was twelve and the one with the really well-gelled hair.”
“Yeah, Turner and Johnson.”
“I had some mild difficulty following what Johnson wanted throughout the story,” Gwen admitted. “We know at the end that he’s going to feel sad about Joan’s death, because of the first scene…”
“Wait, why do we know that during the first scene?” Dania asked.
“Because the first scene is a flash-forward to after Joan gets burned.”
Dania stopped in her path up the street, steadying herself. “What.”
“You didn’t pick that up?” Gwen asked. “It’s not like she could have gotten burned twice.”
“Wait, I though the first scene was after she was saved from being hung,” Eleanor said. “Was she supposed to be burned then?”
“I assumed so. Cauchon – the red cloak of death person – has some line where he says ‘we need to burn her again, now that we know she’s really a woman.’ I figure that he was talking about burning her at the stake.”
“Then why do the Jailhouse Frat Boys talk about her coming back to the jail after she was already killed later on?” Eleanor asked. “That one is about the botched hanging, right?”
“Yes, I’m certain of that part.”
Dania groaned. “Why does this always happen with stories that don’t happen in chronological order? I can never follow what’s going on.”
“I could still follow it,” Gwen assured. “It required piecing some things together after the fact, but I figured it out.”
“But is that ‘following’ the play, though?” Dania asked.
“I mean, once Joan was in the jail again, I could follow the plot pretty clearly,” Eleanor said. “It’s just the opening that’s a little unclear.”
“And the ending, maybe,” Dania said.
“Oh, the jail scene,” Gwen said. She brought a hand to her temple.
“What about the jail scene?” Eleanor said.
“I just…” Gwen began, before correcting herself. “Don’t get me wrong, I largely enjoyed the play. It was interesting, and the dialogue between the Saints and Joan was snappy and engaging. Making me think about the story in a new way is always a plus. Strong actors, naturally.”
“You’re pre-defending yourself a lot right now,” Eleanor said. “What did you hate so much about the jail scene?”
“Was it the guy with the hair hanging into his face?” Dania suggested. “Like, I can’t take you seriously if you don’t get your hair out of your face, dude.”
“No, it was the laughter,” Gwen groaned. “Joan’s little self-righteous laughter during that scene. Drove me up the wall.”
Eleanor glanced at Dania. “Isn’t it supposed to? I mean, she’s a stubborn person, she’s not supposed to be really likeable.”
“Isn’t she, though?” Gwen answered. “The play is called Joan of Arc.”
“I mean…” Eleanor said. “That doesn’t make her a good person, just the protagonist.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said. “But did the laughter have to be so childish and high-pitched and…”
Gwen trailed off.
“This feels like more of a personal thing for you,” Dania said, after a moment’s pause.
“I mean, I’m not sure Joan is supposed to be a likeable character,” Eleanor said. “She straight up rejects the word of the Saints for no other reason than because she wants to spite the angry priest. It’s only after the Saints leave her that she has to make a decision for herself. Right?”
“I suppose,” Gwen said. “What makes her scenes with the Saints so interesting to watch is how in league Joan usually is with her voices.”
“You usually are with the voices in your head, I guess,” Dania added.
“Perhaps. But even in the Shaw version – in that version of the story, the voices are almost certainly imagined, entirely in her mind. So her rejection of them is framed more like her abandoning her morals out of fear than from spite. Although you could technically read the Shaw version like they’re real voices. How do you read the Shaw version?”
Gwen paused, navigating over the speed bump in the argument. “Sure. But anyhow, the idea that the voices are real, actually disagreeing with Joan over principle, gives a new look at the conflict.”
“I wouldn’t say the voices are necessarily ‘real,’ or, like, the real voices of God,” Eleanor said. “You could still make the argument that even when they’re played by actual actors, it’s all in Joan’s head. I mean, no matter how you interpret the Saints, Joan will always be the only one that hears them.”
“Well, what happened in the actual history?” Dania asked.
Both Eleanor and Gwen stared with confusion at Dania.
“The voices…were in her head,” Eleanor began. “So we don’t…know.”
Dania looked down at the ground. “Right. Gotcha.”
“It’s all a developmental production, anyway,” Gwen said. “I’m sure they’re still editing the text. The point is, I like what they did with the Saints. They even have a subtle distinction between the two – Grey Dress feels a little more fatalist than Blue Dress, Blue Dress presses Joan harder to get her into the fire.”
“Which one is which?” Eleanor said, holding out the program. “It’s Olivia Gregorich and Amanda Hays, but I got no indication which one was which.”
“They’re both fairly strong,” Gwen said. “Especially paired with Sierra Buffum as Joan. I mean, leave it to the three female roles to totally steal the show in a cast of mostly men.”
“It was five women and four men,” Eleanor said. “I counted during bows. Although two of the women are playing men.”
“It’s such a weird plot, when you actually think about it,” Dania added, suddenly. “The whole goal of the Saints is basically ‘kill yourself.’ That is a weird message to be getting from God.”
Gwen chuckled. “It’s more ‘die a martyr so you don’t compromise your morals,’ but I suppose so.”
“Still,” Dania said. “They abandon her at the end. Any play where the guiding spirit’s motivation can basically be summed up as ‘kill yourself loser’ is one that I’m at least not going to tune out during.”
“And then she does!” Eleanor added. “Although I guess the whole martyr thing does happen.”
“That’s the final image, with the Saints looking at the Joan stained glass window projection,” Gwen explained.
“Oh, that makes sense,” Dania said, shuffling her feet. “I thought they were just fans of ‘Viva La Vida.'”
Image Credit: Abaisses Theatre