Review: In Joan and the Fire at Trap Door Theatre, the Storytellers Battle Over History but Joan Still Burns

Joan and the Fire, Trap Door Theatre’s latest production, by Romanian playwright Matei Vișniec, takes us back to the Middle Ages to argue about history. The story is told by an all-female cast, costumed in vogueish black leather shifts and tights, black and red accessories, and colorful ribbons—lots of ribbons—that serve multiple purposes. Nicole Wiesner directs this meditation on the Hundred Years War with the outrageous panache we expect from Trap Door. The script was translated by Jeremy Lawrence. 

The story begins appropriately with the Storyteller (Carolyn Benjamin) guiding a troupe of contemporary performers as they begin to perform the story of Joan of Arc. But suddenly, Joan herself appears to tell her own story—despite the Storyteller’s insistence that Joan has been dead for 600 years and couldn’t possibly tell her own story. This Joan, played by Cat Evans, is joined by two other Joans at various points in the play. (There’s a lot of doubling as director Wiesner uses her eight actors to advantage.) 

Carolyn Benjamin (front) as the Storyteller, with the three Joans (Nichelson, Evans and Huneke) behind her. Photo by J. Michael Griggs.

When informed she’s dead, Joan retorts that she couldn’t be dead because she is a myth—and myths never die. And, she says, “you are botching my story so I am here to tell it myself.” She informs the performers that she’s been sent by God—to leave her village, take up arms to drive the English from France, and to crown King Charles VII of France at Reims. (Because Paris is held by the English and the Burgundians, allies of the English.) At this point, you are probably wishing you remembered more from that European history course or at least had taken time to read the Wikipedia pages on Joan of Arc or the Hundred Years War—the latter is a very detailed and informative page, by the way.

The play becomes a battle of storytelling as each side fights to save its own version of history. The king (friskily played by Tia Pinson) is ably supported by the clown Hainselin (the Trap Door veteran Emily Lotspeich, who later becomes a unicorn). Manuela Rentea (whose ovation-worthy performance we commented upon in Princess Ivona) is the Monk and also becomes Death. Lauren Fisher is an athletic Thief and later Jean de Luxembourg who bargains with the Duke of Bedford (Rentea) for the prisoner Joan. The two supporting Joans are Juliet Kang Huneke and Emily Nichelson, who also play St. Margaret and St. Catherine. 

In the end, there is a trial and Joan burns. That’s not a spoiler; you learned this story in high school and besides, it’s 600 years old. 

Cat Evans and Juliet Kang Huneke, front. Photo by J. Michael Griggs.

Director Wiesner does a remarkable job of keeping this action going and certified done in 90 minutes including a battle royale with beribboned weapons. Costumes are by Rachel Sypniewski, makeup and hair design by Zsófia Ötvös. Set design is by J. Michael Griggs, lighting by Richard Norwood, music and sound design by Danny Rockett. Stage manager is Anna Klos. Bill Gordon choreographs the fight scenes.

Playwright Vișniec was born in Romania; his work was banned when he began writing plays in 1977. He moved to Paris and gained political asylum in 1987. After communism fell in 1989, Vișniec became one of the most performed playwrights in his native country and his plays are now produced all over the world. Trap Door has produced several of his plays—notably, Occidental Express,  How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients, and Alas, from Vișniec’s Cabaret of Words.

Joan and the Fire continues at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave., through April 18. Tickets are $25 with 2-for-1 admission on Thursdays. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Masks are required while you are in the theater building.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.