Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Joan of Arc" at Nautilus Music-Theater

This week has been a week of one-woman shows for me.  First The Edge of Our Bodies at the Guthrie, a beautiful coming-of-age story, and then Joan of Arc by Nautilus Music-Theater.  I'm not sure if it could technically be called a one-woman show, there are beautiful voices and music coming from backstage, but the only person the audience sees in front of them is Jennifer Baldwin Peden of the famous Baldwin sisters (I saw her sister, Christina, most recently as Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore this summer).  Jennifer narrates the story of Joan of Arc and also embodies her.  It's a fascinating and inspirational story that I was only vaguely familiar with, and this 70-minute music-theater piece beautifully conveys her courage, spirit, doubts, and determination.

I saw my first Nautilus production at Fringe this summer and loved it, but this is the first regular season show I've seen.  This is their first show produced in their tiny studio space in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood, and it was in fact designed for the space.  It is without a doubt the smallest room in which I have ever seen theater; it's about the size of a living room.  Two rows of chairs are lined up on either side of the room (seating about 40 people), with a catwalk stage running between them and two small stages on either end.  It's incredibly intimate; no microphones needed (except when the disembodied voices portray accusers and are projected into opposite corners of the room).  At times Jennifer was literally three feet in front of me singing.  As I've said before, I find that there's something magical about the unamplified human voice, and when the voice is Jennifer's and you're three feet away from it, it's a pretty amazing experience.  That's another benefit of such a small, intimate space; you're not just an observer watching the show, you're part of the experience.

Joan of Arc follows the historical and mythical figure as she enters battle for her native France and is captured by the English.  She's put on trial for heresy (claiming that God and his saints and angels speak to her), wearing men's clothes, and generally being a strong woman who doesn't obey the conventions of the day (aka "a witch").  She's burned at the stake at the age of 19, as many such women were in 15th century Europe.  I'm not sure about the idea of hearing voices, but this is a young woman of strong faith and conviction who helped her people at a time they needed it.  The men in power feared her strength and conviction, and so ended her.  Through the beautiful expressive music, Jennifer creates a picture of this young woman, clinging to her faith and overcoming her doubts, refusing to back down from what she believes.

At first it was a little disconcerting to hear the music (sung by Joel Liestman, JP Fitzgibbons, and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, with Music Director Sonja Thompson on piano and Randall Davidson on cello) and not see the musicians.  I kept turning my head, expecting to see the singers come out from behind the wall.  But they never did; they're Joan's voices, even she couldn't see them.  It was like being in her head and hearing the voices of the angels along with her.  At times they went silent (when she renounced them as her accusers demanded), and you could feel the silence and Joan's loneliness, and her happiness and fulfillment when they returned to her.

This is what musical theater is to me.  Not some big, loud, over-produced adaptation of a children's movie, but original, challenging, creative, moving.  Or in the words of Nautilus Artistic Director and director of this piece, Ben Krywosz, "telling simple stories through songs that are musically expansive, favoring emotional realism over theatrical naturalism, and creating a dramaturgical context that requires an audience's involvement, even investment."  The short run of the show closes this weekend.  They're virtually sold out for the few remaining performances, but they said to call and they might be able to squeeze a few more chairs into the space.  It's worth it.