Review: In Joan and the Fire at the Trap Door Theatre, the storytellers fight over the story, 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, dressed 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’ve come to expect from Trap Door. The script was translated by Jeremy Lawrence.

The story appropriately begins with the storyteller (Carolyn Benjamin) leading a group of modern performers as they begin to perform the story of Joan of Arc. But suddenly Joan herself seems to be telling her own story – despite the storyteller’s insistence that Joan has been dead for 600 years and could not 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 his eight actors to his advantage.)

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

When told she’s dead, Joan replies that she couldn’t be dead because she’s a myth – and myths never die. And, she says, “you’re failing my story, so I’m here to tell it myself.” She informs the performers that she has 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 in Reims. (Because Paris is held by the English and Burgundians, allies of the English.) At this point you’re probably wishing you remembered more from your European history course or at least had taken the time to read the Wikipedia pages on Joan of Arc or the Hundred Years’ War— the latter is a very detailed and informative site by the way.

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The play becomes a battle of storytelling as each side fights to save their own version of history. The king (freshly played by Tia Pinson) is ably supported by the clown Hainselin (Felledør veteran Emily Lotspeich, who later becomes a unicorn). Manuela Rentea (whose ovation-worthy performance we commented on Princess Ivona) is the monk and also becomes Death. Lauren Fisher is an athletic thief and later Jean de Luxembourg who negotiates 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. It’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 moving and certified complete 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. The 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 was granted political asylum in 1987. After the fall of communism in 1989, Vișniec became one of the most performed playwrights in his native country, and his plays are now produced across the country . world. Trap Door has produced several of his plays – notably, Occidental Express, How to explain the history of communism to mental patients, and Alasfrom Vișniec’s Cabaret of words.

Joan and the Fire continues at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave., through April 18. Tickets are $25 with 2-for-1 admission on Thursdays. The performances are Thursday-Saturday at 20:00. The playing time is 90 minutes without a break. Masks are required while in the theater building.

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For more information on this and other productions, see

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