Burning Desires, Defiant Theatre, at National Pastime Theater, and Fatetheft, Mammals, at the Space. The Joan of Arc story is ambiguous enough to have inspired two vastly different retellings. In Joan Schenkar's comic Burning Desires, rebellion simmers in the postcard-pretty Seattle of 1958: a teenage girl named Joan Dark is haunted by visions of a fiery martyrdom even as she's comforted by her spiritual counselors--Gertrude Stein, Emily Bronte, and Marlene Dietrich. Eventually her psychiatrist father, incensed by his daughter's unfeminine behavior (she wears trousers and takes up archery), vows to burn her with electroshock therapy. Meanwhile a gang of prepubescent pyromaniettes called the Bonfire Girls wage war against clueless Boy Scouts, and the Native American princess Angeline plots to usurp her indolent brothers' claims to tribal leadership.
With its comic-book characterizations, Schenkar's commentary on rigid gender roles could easily have foundered. But there's enough innocent adolescent humor to disarm the play's undeniable misandry. And Defiant Theatre's muscular Chicago premiere keeps a firm grip on the text, deftly bringing its disparate elements together for the play's climax, a thrilling rescue.
Cherise Silvestri makes a suitably ingenuous Joan, but she's outdone by the irrepressible sorority of Kati Brazda, Cynthia Cervini, and Kate Martin as Saints Marlene, Gertrude, and Emily. Martin McClendon supplies a wealth of clever scenic effects, including a car that unfolds like a Murphy bed; the production features some cute animated videos; and brothers Matthew and Brian Callahan feed the fire with a score of faux-50s ditties. Though still a bit rough around the edges, Burning Desires delivers enough outrageous fun to satisfy the most hagiophobic theatergoer.
The actress playing Joan is miked in Bob Fisher's Fatetheft, though the Space's tiny storefront hardly warrants amplification. We soon discover the reason, however: as her dreams are invaded by hooded angels as seductively gentle as they are brutally unyielding, we realize that this Joan's visions are decidedly erotic. Her anguished breathing punctuates the synthesizer riffs and poetic imagery, prodividing aural accompaniment to scenes of her excruciation at the hands of earthly and celestial tormentors. Fatetheft's extravagant sensuality may spark irreverent comparisons to soft-core music videos, but Fisher's thesis is provocative--that shuffling off this mortal coil can look awfully attractive after sufficient agony.