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Joan's Trials/Life's Too Short

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JOAN'S TRIALS
Live Theatre

Every once in a while a show opens that's so bad it boggles the mind. Joan's Trials, currently playing at Live Theatre, is such a play. "Collected, re-assembled, written and directed," according to the program, by Live Theatre guru A.C. Thomas, this exceptionally tedious two-and-a-half-hour collage, which includes numerous quotations about Joan of Arc from better writers, couldn't have been worse if all involved had conspired to make it so.

Unevenly acted, poorly directed, excruciatingly written, Joan's Trials is based on a bizarre premise: that you can update Joan's life story--medieval peasant girl hears voices, miraculously leads the French army to victory, falls into the hands of her enemies, is put on trial and burnt as a heretic--to contemporary America. In Thomas's version Joan Lark is your average American girl, born not in Orleans, France, but in New Orleans, Louisiana. She hears not the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Michael but mildly melancholy new-age music not unlike the tunes George Winston plunks out for Windham Hill.

For reasons Thomas never bothers to explain, this modern-day Joan, played by Lucinda Burkhardt, is on trial. (Perhaps it's her taste in music.) Happily, her court-appointed attorney has the ability to subpoena long-dead authors to testify on her behalf. Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Jean Anouilh, even Bertolt Brecht show up, swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, and then launch into their versions of Joan's story, which are acted out before our very eyes by the winsome Meagan Downey (who's still in high school). Unfortunately the prosecuting attorney seems to have the same magical gift, though the only historical figure we see testify against Joan is William Shakespeare, who made her out to be a harlot and a sorceress in Henry VI.

The authorities seem dead set on convicting Joan of an unknown crime, so no matter how many times we hear what a saint she is the pompous judge still frowns and the mean-spirited prosecutor gloats. Meanwhile Joan's cheery attorney chirps, "You must tell your story. That's why we're here." A moment later she adds, "Stay with the truth. It can't hurt you." As if telling the truth as she knew it saved the real Joan from the stake.

Watching this mess unfold, it's hard to figure out what Thomas is trying to express. If he'd hoped to reveal the woman behind the myth, he failed. Joan Lark, despite a number of very long, digressive monologues delivered from the solitude of her cell, is even more of a cipher than her historical sister. The problem is that the more she talks about her life--growing up in small-town America, having her first period, skinny-dipping with a black boyfriend, describing how swimming naked made her nipples hard--the less she resembles Joan of Arc. And if Thomas's message is that we can never really know the historical Joan, his play is too incoherent to make that point. Every time her story is retold the facts just become a little more muddled and the audience a little more confused.

In the second act Thomas tosses away even the pretense of coherent story telling. First he gives the eccentric defense attorney an insanely long monologue in which, by way of explaining why she's the right person to defend Joan, she launches into a chronicle of her various dangerous liaisons, starting with an affair she had in high school with a male English teacher and ending with a lesbian affair she had with a college professor. Later in the same act Thomas hands the story over to a pushy, pretentious performance artist, Sa-Man-Tha, who announces, "Performance art is anything. It doesn't have to mean a thing." She then cruelly extends the play by 20 minutes with a pointless, opaque performance piece based on Saint Joan's life.

Trapped in this purgatory, the cast behaves like an above-average gang of semiprofessionals. Some overact like crazy, some stoically carry on, performing the ever-thankless task of acting well in an awful show. Diane Ponti Wright, Sa-Man-Tha, belongs in the first category. Lucinda Burkhardt, by managing to bring a modicum of dignity and life to Joan Lark, belongs in the second.

Meagan Downey, who with a little experience in a real theater company may develop into an actress worth watching, belongs in both. Her work as Joan of Arc is by turns artful and artless, carefully controlled and outrageously hammy. Her fits of shameless mugging almost seem to show contempt for Thomas's play.

But who could blame her? The only true line in the whole play comes during the trial when Joan Lark shouts, "This is utter bullshit!"

LIFE'S TOO SHORT
at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ

There aren't many lines of believable dialogue in Michael Dailey and Pat McCurdy's one-act rock musical Life's Too Short either. Set in a group-therapy session, it attempts to tell the story of a group of misfits--an angry jock, a horny nerd, an icy blond, a homeless bum, a love-starved shy girl--who slowly emerge from their shells and learn to love their lives.

Unfortunately, Dailey tells his story so quickly, abruptly leaping from one plot point to another, that it's sometimes hard to tell what's happening and even harder to tell why. Why, for instance, do the homeless man and the ultrachic woman executive suddenly fall into bed together?

Dailey's characters are little more than stock, changing very little over the course of the play. The jock remains a jock, the nerd a nerd. Dailey's dialogue, most of which has a very sitcomlike thud to it, doesn't add much depth. "I'm here," one character explains to the group, "because my fucking bitch cunt girlfriend walked out on me."

Yet Dailey's premise--that a good show could be written around Pat McCurdy's evocative rock music--was a good one. Whatever depth this show has is thanks to the songs, though a fair number of McCurdy's lines are so predictable you can finish them before the singer. As in the tune in which the characters pour out their hearts: "Clowns make me nervous. Petitions make me nervous. Beauty-pageant contestants make me nervous. Happiness makes me . . . "

The acting is fairly uneven, with the best performances coming from Todd and Sue Frampton, who prove as comfortable with Dailey's comedy as they were last fall with Chicago Stage's grim Beirut, and the worst coming from Mark Stringer, who, as the group's therapist, does a shameless flat imitation of Night Court's Harry Anderson.

It would be unfair to put this sincere but flawed effort in the same category as Live Theatre's dreck, but Dailey would do well to rethink what he's trying to do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): V.L. Harlow.

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