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For 500 years, Joan of Arc has been celebrated and reviled as a weirdo and liar, a charismatic military leader, schizophrenic and/or mystic, victim of the prevailing anti-female (and nervously anti-mystical) bigotry of 15th century European church and state, feminist icon, a miraculous maid who remained intact amongst rough men, and film vehicle for Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg, Michelle Morgan and the astonishing silent actress whose name I can't recall.

She fascinates because we simply don't know what she was about, except being 19 years old, consumed with nationalist fervor, and ending up betrayed and burned to death despite her piety and service to God and nation.

On Saturday evening I went to the beautifully medieval St. John's Grace Episcopal Church to see a new playwright's take on Joan, titled "Joan of Arc: Alive!" In its ghostly vaults I met an entirely new Joan from any I have met before -- one who claims to have escaped death and lived on for several decades after her recorded combustion.

Well. First things first. The production itself, directed by Kelli Grey Bocock, was most impressive, particularly since this was the premiere of a work by a novice playwright. The set, which was essentially the sacristy of the church, was the perfect place in which to weave the cryptic tale told by playwright Betsey Baun, a well-regarded Western New York theatrical costume designer.

Lighting by John Baun was subtle and effective, no mean feat considering the unusual area he had to light and the relatively few light lines at his disposal here. Costumes by Kenneth Shaw were rich and complex in style and construction, a fitting counterpoint to the austere stone arches against which they were posed. The choreography, uncredited in the program, was also quite elegant, although I wasn't sure what the poetically-rendered gestures signified, and they seemed too deliberate to be purely abstract dance movement.

The music, most of it original and composed by John Michael Adamo, was quite lovely. Soprano Jill Raisen Buerk did much of the musical research and performed magnificently here along with Marco Rodriguez and Michael Arden Sulzbach -- all playing multiple roles, many of them sung.

The play itself is based on a book auspiciously titled "Operation Shepherdess" by Andre Guerin and Jack Palmer White, who seem to be conspiracy theorists. They propose that Joan of Arc was not burned at the stake at all, but that some poor wretch had been roasted in her stead. They also pose the possibility that Joan was of royal blood and had been shipped off at birth to her little village by the King of France to await her call to arms on behalf of his son, her half-brother, whose coronation she eventually facilitated through a military campaign. In the end, the new king had her freed and then married off her to somebody in Belgium (I think), who told her of the ruse.

Ho-KAY! The fact is that Joan's ultimate salvation in spirit or body is far less interesting than the first part of her life in which she was as spooky and successful as a maid could be.

Bess Brown Kregal, a Shakespearean actress of no little talent, plays Joan here, and it's a difficult task. First, the dialogue of the play is not written in spoken English. The playwright employs a polemical literary style full of clauses and complex sentences and words difficult to pronounce, much less imbue with emotion or meaning. This is a mistake. The script needs to be rewritten to reflect how someone under duress would talk to herself; how a terrified young person would express her fears, her courage, her longing for home; how a mystic or psychotic might give words to a strange reality.

I have seen Brown play roles in which she could tear your heart out. Here, she is forced to remember and repeat very long complicated lines, follow arguments about uncles and brothers and who said what 20 years before and what war precipitated what attitude -- who cares about that stuff? If we don't relate to the person -- the character -- in front of us then all the explications of French history in the world can't save the play.

Baun is clearly taken with the hypothesis of Guerin and White. Unfortunately, it forces her to make endless arcane references in order to explain the action onstage, which is already getting fuzzy by the end of the first half.

In short, then, the production design is very good. Director Bocock and actor Brown, working with what they have here, did a very fine job, as did the musical director and composer, lighting designer, actors and costumiere. The playwright, too, is to be commended for taking on such a difficult subject from a very unusual angle.

Joan of Arc: Alive!

Rating: * * *
A new play by Betsey Baun.i
Directed by Kelli Grey Bocock for Jebb Productions, music by John Adamo, starring Bess Brown Kregal.
Final performances Friday and Saturday at 8 in St. John's Grace Episcopal Church, 51 Colonial Circle, Lafayette and Richmond avenues (876-3642).

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