THEATER | “Joan of Arc” by Nautilus Music-Theater: “Welcome to our little experiment!”


Nautilus Music-Theater’s production of a new musical piece about Joan of Arc is one of those theater experiences that’s so good I find myself hard-pressed to talk about it terms of specifics.  Because it’s all good.  Performances, direction, design, script, music—good, good, good, good, good.  Some of the best you’ll see.  None of this is a surprise, coming from Nautilus.  This is what they do.  They bring the art of storytelling through music to new levels, often serving as the incubator in which these new works are born.

“A virgin has been sacrificed on the altar of the church.  We are pagans still.”

Uplifting isn’t the first word that I thought I’d find myself using when discussing a production centering around the imprisonment, trial and execution of a teenage girl, but uplifting it is.  This is largely because the story of Joan of Arc herself is so inspiring.  An illiterate 17 year old peasant girl who, hearing the voices of angels in her head, leads the French army in driving the occupying British soldiers out of France, Joan is never defeated. Even when captured, even when tortured, even while defiled, Joan bounces back more defiant than before. She has setbacks, as any hero does, but she rises above them.  Her faith makes her strong, and allows her to accept her death with dignity, holding to the belief that she is beating even death.

“Before we are done with you, you shall recant these abominations.”

The libretto by Laura Harrington and the music by Mel Marvin of course go a long way in providing that uplift. Music and song allow the audience to soar along with Joan. But even the non-musical stretches of dialogue are enormously entertaining and compelling, because Joan is clever enough to outwit her enemies (which of course only makes them more determined to destroy her). Joan also has the benefit of being embodied on stage by the marvelous Jennifer Baldwin Peden, whose singing voice and acting chops are on full display here.

“Only the stone of my heart, sharp, alone, dropping into silence.”

The unusual thing about the production is Jennifer Baldwin Peden is the only person visible on stage, but she is far from the only character in the story. JP Fitzgibbons, Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, and Joel Liestman are ever-present voices from off-stage. Their singing voices as Joan’s guiding angels erupt and power in from one end of the stage. Thanks to Ted Moore’s intriguing sound design, the voices of their other characters, sent over microphones and speakers, are pumped into the theater from the opposite end of the space.  

“God has chosen me.  That should be enough.”

These characters are all too human and not at all divine. Fitzgibbons and Liestman portray the Grand Inquisitors conducting Joan’s trial, as well as a variety of prison guards who torment her. Flannigan-Hegge provides a moving turn as the female assistant to the court, sent to determine whether or not Joan is truly a virgin. Flannigan-Hegge’s reluctant accomplice to Joan’s tormentors makes a personal connection to Joan that provides the imprisoned girl with her first real sense of the world outside her cell. Like so much else in the play, it is unexpected and deeply moving.

“The color of your husband’s eyes.”

You’d think the “unseen voices” thing would get old really quickly, but surprisingly it doesn’t.  This is partly due to the ingenious sound work, but the actors deserve the lion’s share of the credit here.  Even though none of the actors can see each other directly, it’s always as if they’re sharing the same space on stage in every scene. It’s one of those gambles that you think shouldn’t work, but it pays off in all kinds of wonderful ways. When Joan is left alone and the music is silent, even a whisper can land with real force.

“That fall should have killed her.  Why isn’t she dead?”

One of the many things I love about the script is the way it addresses the battle of organized religion and a young woman of faith. Neither side is dismissed. The notions of religion and faith, which can be the same thing but often are not, are treated with respect. Such things are very important to characters on all sides of Joan’s conflict. It is what drives them. Though religious law is what they ultimately use to condemn Joan, religion itself is not the enemy.  

“Your little hour of miracles is over.”

The motives for capturing and destroying Joan have as much to do with politics as with faith, and not just the politics of warring countries. Those sitting in judgment of Joan are appalled just as much by Joan’s stepping outside her accepted gender role as anything else. She wears men’s clothes. She takes on the traditionally male role of a leader in battle. That angels would speak to a young peasant girl, well, that’s unheard of. Her existence, and success, threaten not just the unquestioned power of their church, but the very role of men in society. The fact that she refuses to break just makes her that much more unnerving to her enemies.

“I expect no other recompense than the salvation of my soul.”

Director Ben Krywosz and Music Director Sonja Thompson not only guide the performers through their paces with ample skill, they’ve overseen the transformation of the Nautilus space itself. The Nautilus studio is completely unrecognizable. The whole environment has been turned into a manifestation of Joan’s prison. Costume and scenic designer Victoria Petrovich, along with scenic painter Rose King and technical director Jon Hegge, have performed a wonderful trick. Grey walls striped with dark red provide the outer boundaries of the space. The audience is lined up on either side of a red runway that spans the middle of the space, leading to steps and platforms at either end. One side has a window with the bars of Joan’s prison cell. The other has the bars of bright fluorescent lights that serve to signify Joan’s accusers in Michael Wangen’s lighting design. In the middle of each wall behind the audience is a screened-in window crammed full of wood and kindling—not a good omen for poor Joan.

“Call them, and the world unhinges.”

As spectacular as the re-imagining of the Nautilus’s physical space is, it’s the simple theatrical flourishes that punctuate the evening which really take your breath away.  Prison bars can become church bells. A single orange represents the whole of the outside world beyond the prison walls. A bowl of talcum powder smeared on Joan’s face and in her hair takes on the disturbing quality of human ash. Joan’s tears washing the ash away are almost more impressive than the cleansing holy rain which follows (yes, it rains indoors).

“I was not meant to be broken.”

With modern musical theater it seems there’s always some little flaw somewhere—a clunky lyric, an uninspired melody. Joan of Arc bucks that trend, too. My critical eye and ear had nothing but pleasant, interesting things on which to feed. Even though Joan of Arc only lasts a little over an hour, it neither feels too short or too long. It’s just right.

“The question is unanswerable.”

Ben Krywosz greeted the audience at the top of the evening by saying, “Welcome to our little experiment.” All experiments should be so successful.

“I am walking through the fire, to you.”

Very highly recommended.

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