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In Carolyn Gage's "The Second Coming of Joan of Arc," a butch Joan speaks in modern lingo about how her brief life and horrific death happened because a mere peasant girl "broke all the rules" enforced by a vast league of men in a patriarchal society. "Our crime," an angry Joan says, "is our gender."

In Cage's hands Joan becomes an articulate spokeswoman for a long litany of ills visited upon women by vicious and hateful men down through the centuries. Before Cage is through she has Joan going right to the top, indicting "God the father" who, it turns out, is really "the boys behind the curtain, amplified and using a lot of special effects."

Cage's conceit, funny and stirring at turns, works in some ways and falters in others. She skillfully laces together the alternating narrative and commentary of her hero. In a play that is all direct address, it is critical to get the varying patterns of speech that fit, on the one hand, the description of historical events and, on the other, Joan's exhortations. Cage's nails them.

But any playwright who expects -- demands -- that her audience hold one solitary viewpoint is bound to fail. Even among lesbians there can be no room for variance of opinion here; a flood of phrases like "of course" and "we women" ensures that everyone adheres to the party line according to Cage. This uniformity of expectation isn't a matter of gender; it's a matter of theater. Theater thrives on ambiguity, even when all in earshot are tuned to the same views. Cheerleading for yourself is simply no fun.

That uniformity is why Cage's humor often falls flat and why the star of this one-woman show, Kate Elliott, has a difficult time getting it across. Elliott tries mightily to inject the necessary notes of sarcasm and irony. But it's hard when the lines pull up like this one: "Did you ever try to stop a scared man? Right!" That ending, like so much of Cage's colloquial language, deflates the insult before it can find its mark. Everyone listening already knows the point -- men are weaselly cowards who will run at a moment's notice -- so why draw it out? But "drawing out" can be a poignant or, as in this instance, a comic theatrical device.

Cage is almost grudging with her humor, as though it might impede the flow of anger that runs through the internal speeches. But worse for this production, Elliott also falls into this grudging mode. At times she seems reticent to play up what is a kind of virulent joke -- as when Joan lists the ways in which women can be annihilated by men, "rape (being) the most traditional one." This should, on the surface, sound funny; then when you get what is actually being said, the moral contrast will stir up contradictory emotions.

At other times Elliott has firm command of the stage, helped by an artfully arranged and lighted set of pleasingly classical proportions. (Whether classicism, an exclusively male creation if there ever was one, is fitting for a lesbian play is another question.) But she never quite achieves the "finely tempered rage" that she talks about in the final minutes of the play.

The Second Coming of Joan of Arc
Rating: * * *
Carolyn Gage's one-woman play in which an angry lesbian Joan demythicizes her martyrdom.

Directed by Margaret Smith and starring Kate Elliott

At 8 tonight, Friday and next Saturday, and at 4 pm Oct. 3 in Hallwallsa Contemporary Arts Center, Tri-Main Building, 2495 Main St. (835-7362)

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