By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Mad Fantastic Maid Of God: Joan of Arc (Stage 36, L’UniThéâtre)
This is a two-actor play that sets itself a theatrical double task.
Mad Fantastic Maid, by the veteran playwright Kenneth Brown, chronicles the life and times, and strange career of history’s most unlikely military leader. But that’s not all. It frames that 15th century history of La Pucelle and the Hundred Years War with a skeptical modern perspective that takes familiar shots at the political/ religious calculations and treachery of the powerful, who doomed the girl to a fiery death.
After all, you don’t get to be a martyr without extremely unpleasant things happening to you.
Jeanne, the unlettered French farm girl who led armies at 17, speaks for herself, in a spirited performance from Melissa Blackwood. She’s shiningly sincere. But then, hey, haven’t we heard rallying cries along the lines of “I am God’s instrument, God’s weapon, etc.” from a variety of much less appealing leaders through the ages?
The play wants us to believe in her belief in herself. If that were ever in any doubt, Blackwood’s luminous performance certainly makes that belief convincing.
Her charismatic cast-mate Ellie Heath, who appears in flowing white above the stage like a smart-ass angel, narrates and populates the story. She steps in and out of it playfully, in a variety of incarnations, helmets and accents, squinting at history sardonically through our own modern lens.
Look what these people got up to, she points out, assisted by audience participation. Wasn’t her trial a setup, a bad joke? I think we can all agree on that. Isn’t it terrible and ridiculous to condemn a girl to death for wearing men’s clothes when she’s leading an army? Absolutely.
At one point I got the idea that this theatrical device, with its various incarnations, was, a sort of collective embodiment of the “voices” La Pucelle famously heard. But by the end I wasn’t so sure.
Anyhow, the play doesn’t attempt to “explain” Jeanne’s charisma, or her startling military acumen. The charisma of self-confidence? The magnetic force field of conviction? Mad Fantastic Maid doesn’t get into it.
Instead it’s a theatrical way, lively if somewhat artificial, to review the history of a mysteriously successful insurrectionist, battle to battle — and at the same time to comment from the 21st century that the political and religious status quo of the 15th was corrupt and misogynistic.
This double-optic isn’t provocative or combative. But it’s engaging just the same.