Angels Unaware: A Story of Joan of Arc (drama)
Melissa Leilani Larson
Joan of Arc has been a woman written about by the bestwriters history has had to offer. When Shakespeare andGeorge Bernard Shaw have tackled the subject, you knowthat you are headed in pretty heady territory. Despitethe fact that she's no Shakespeare, Angels Unaware, anew play by Melissa Leilani Larson, has such a freshapproach to the subject, that I think it would be verydifficult for a person to come out of the play withouta new perspective on Joan of Arc. Not only a newperspective, but that this historic woman had a senseof inspiration and light.
What is this newness, this point of attack that makesthis such an interesting and moving play? What doesLarson focus on that the brilliance of Shaw andShakespeare failed to? It may sound ironic to saysuch, since its the very thing that was Joan of Arc'smain driving force, but it can be encapsulated in oneword: Religion. In that one word we find the greateststrengths and weaknesses of the play.
Here's the premise: Joan's guiding spirits, SaintCatherine and Saint Margaret (with occassionalappearances from Michael the Archangel) have anassignment: to help Joan of Arc free France fromEngland's oppression within a year's time. There's onehitch, however, which is one of the play's mostinteresting premises-- these "Saints" don't reallyknow what they're doing.
Larson takes a wonderful departure from classicalrepresentations of heavenly beings: that these Saintsaren't nearly so grand, omniscient and all powerful aswe would assume they would be. She scales them downfrom something perfect to something oh so beautifullyhuman (and in the process places them squarely in theLDS concept of the Spirit World, an "in betweenplace", as its described in the play).
In this process the play is not solely about Joan ofArc (in fact, it can be argued that she is not eventhe main character). The two Christian Martyrs killedby the Romans, Catherine and Margaret, are goodfriends who had known each other in the mortal realm,but have often opposing personalities, especially inregard to guiding Joan.
Catherine has a mother bear instinct, wanting tosmooth Joan's path, to help her with miracles, toprotect her from pain (even to the point of making hera promise to bring her home safely-- a promise, whicheven the most casual student of history knows, shewon't be able to keep). Much of this come from her ownexperiences of being tortured for her faith andwanting to shield Joan from the experiences that shewishes she didn't have to endure herself on the wheeland then the beheading block.
Margaret, on the other hand, is more of a realist. Shedoesn't hide from unpleasant truths, nor thepossibility that their guidance may lead Joan into thevery thing that both these woman had to endurethemselves-- a painful and tortured death. At timesthis makes her seem a little cold hearted toCatherine-- but, although it's a tougher form of it,her love for Joan is no less real. And, for mepersonally, I liked Margaret's character more, for shereflects more fully my view on life. We must never letemotionalism and attachment estrange us from thetruth. Pain must never deter us from Peace. Althoughwe see through Jennie Pardoe's spot on performancethat, although she may not express it as muchCatherine, she feels the pain no less. Let us rememberthat Catherine can't boast any pain or torture thatMargaret can't match-- she had been, according to thelegend, sexually harassed, boiled alive, burned alive,swallowed by the devil in a form of a dragon, had herbreasts cut off and then she was beheaded. She knewher fair share of psychological and physical pain.In these women, as well as in Joan and othercharacters who we are introduced to, we find one ofLarson's greatest strengths as a playwright:character. Larson makes her characters multi-faceted--very few of them are card board cut outs. They haveconflicting interests, weaknesses, passions, fears,glories-- they are what all people are, mutts with themix of divinity and humanity within them.
However, the script is not without its flaws:
- The dialogue starts out rather didactic and clunky(fortunately, this is repaired as the play goes on andLarson finds her groove and the dialogue becomes morefluid and natural).
- A couple of the villains (although convincinglyacted), betray Larson's otherwise powerful grasp oncharacter. They're villainy seems a little toocomplete.
- Larson introduces a device which I'm reluctant tocriticize since I've used it in own of my own plays--a chorus of "historians" (which made me a littlenervous when I saw it on the program because"Historians" are even what I call my own Chorus in myplay Friends of God. Fortunately, even though they actvarious roles in the play as mine did, they didn'tprove to be too much like my concept).
The concept isn't bad, but, especially since theseHitorians introduce the play, they (as historians, notas the characters they portray thorughout) play toolittle a part of the narrative. They throw out factualinformation every once in a while, to update us towhat is happening, but do little else. They're kind ofa one sided book end plot. And since we already haveone of those with Margaret, Catherine and Michael,they're kind of redundant and don't serve much of apurpose. The information they give out could easily betaken up by the Saints instead. And Larson neverreally does follow through with them-- they seem to bean idea that really intrigued Larson, but didn't knowwhat to do with by the end. They become a loose end atthe end of the narrative.
Then there's the subject of Religion which prevails somuch throughout the play. And not only Religion, butoften Mormon Religion, manifesting itself throughthemes, comparisons and theology. As I said before,within this point of attack is found the play'sgreatest strengths and weaknesses.
For example, there is a comparison of Joan to JosephSmith (although only an LDS person would probably pickup on it) throughout the play which I rather liked.However, at one point it became glaringly blatant andcompletely took me out of the show. Joan is throwninto prison and she says," O God, Where Art Thou? Andwhere is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?"Although this text is also found in the Bible, thatphrase has been so connected to Joseph Smith in theLDS mind, that it totally took me out of the story athand. The parallels between them are certainly thereand we can definitely benefit from looking at thecomparisons. However, in the end this wasn't a playabout the Prophet. It's a play about a Prophetess.That moment, instead of following Joan's story andfeeling her pain, I thought of the ordeal of LibertyJail. Instead of inspiring me, it distracted me. Thereare other moments like that throughout the play, wherethe religion, (instead of being an elegant addition asit usually is through the play), becomes a littleclumsy and heavy handed.
Yet, when all is said and done, all of these littleflaws I've pointed out are forgiven. For the play ispowerful, it is moving, it is beautiful. Thespirituality that is infused in the very bones andsinews of the play make it radiate. At the point whenJoan is burned at the stake, something very beautifulhappens (I won't spoil it for you, since I wanteveryone to see this play), and tears poured down myface. Not because of emotional manipulation ormelodrama. But because at that moment, the Spiritrushed through me and I felt as if I was about toburst with light. That light followed me home, as mywife and I discussed the play, both of us veryimpressed and edified.
Much of the positive experience came from the greatproduction values. First of all, I don't think I'veseen a play directed by David Morgan that I didn'tlike. The aesthetic and the intellectual are alwaysfully realized in his productions (although, I kind ofchuckled to myself when I saw that the play was in atennis court arena style, since he had just used thaton A Marrying Man. It's a style that's veryinteresting, however).
The acting was skilled and powerful especially byHollie Beard as Joan of Arc; Jason Purdie as KingCharles and Warwick; and Slate Holmgren who plays themost sympathetic and interesting of Larson's villains,the Arch Bishop Cauchron. However, I was very pleasedwith the whole cast. A very balanced and skilledensemble.
The set was beautiful (using lovely stain glasswindows of Catholic Saints). The costuming was elegantand effective (my wife is usually very critical ofcostuming, and they passed with flying colors underher scrutinizing eye).
But, in the end, to me what matters most to me, beinga playwright myself, is the script. And, with the fewexceptions I've already noted, I think Larson is apowerful talent. Sometimes she wears her faith on hersleeve, but that is often said of me as well, so Idon't count it against her. For the sleeve it's wornon, and the faith itself, has elegance, craftmanship,dimension and beauty. But, perhaps most important ofall in a show that is focused on the spiritual and thereligious, the play edifies.
Mahonri Stewart March 12, 2006
© 2006 Mahonri Stewart