If “Saint Joan” was George Bernard Shaw’s “tragedy without villains,” Austin playwright Patrick Shaw’s “The Repentance of Saint Joan” might be something delightfully closer to a history play without those pesky historical facts.
Taking up the legacy of Joan of Arc, the play arbitrates her life post-execution through the incompatible memories of two survivors who each think they knew her best — her high school boyfriend / military page and her sibling / expert historian. It’s these characters’ slashes — their inseparably personal and professional capacities — that keep the play moving.
The Paper Chairs production continues that company’s ongoing residency at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, and Lisa Laratta’s scenic design nestles seamlessly into the design firm’s eclectic facility in East Austin. With purple twilight hanging low over the chapel-like performance space, a large water basin and fire bowl accentuate something elemental about this story.
Of course, Joan’s eventual burning at the stake haunts every poke at the embers and fresh log added from the wall of innocently split wood, but the prominence of these features also keeps the “real time” present always in view. (Well, that and the traverse staging that puts the audience on either side of the stage, able to keep an eye on our fellow spectators.)
That awareness of time passing proves enjoyable as a complement to Shaw’s use of imaginative anachronism. He, along with co-directors Laratta and Elizabeth Doss enmesh the Hundred Years War with a more recent, personal past in a system with a logic all its own.
Bits of how this works — such as the official court historian (Jess O’Rear) to King Charles fundraising to make a History Channel-style documentary about his sister — drop in chewy morsels, cleverly omitting the drier details in favor of trips to the movies and first kisses. The playwright takes the immediacy one step further, though, considering that the play’s protagonist (movingly played by Judd Farris) is credited as “Me” in the program and introduces himself as “Patrick Shaw.”
Thought provoking and original, “The Repentance of Saint Joan” peels back the layers of the legendary warrior; that’s what was expected. A Russian nesting doll of meanings around the idea of repentance — Who is doing it? Of what? And to whom? — unboxes itself, however, as the historian and the page reconnoiter their relationships to Joan.
Farris delivers a passionate performance, swelling energetically to fill the intimate venue. O’Rear’s staidness meets him in equal measure, embodying the calculus of a person walking the line between being a politician and an academic. What is more, the creative team has crafted the historian’s role into valuable casting real estate for gender queer folks and has done so with subtly and honesty.
Also having co-directed the piece, Doss’s Joan portrayal lurks just beyond the human, hanging out on the rim of the play. She is already in place by the time the house opens and remains onstage for the duration, and her imperiousness weighs on those who have survived. The effect is one of striking contrast with the relatively naturalistic scenes that treat the fallout from her execution.
Critically, this is a play in which how we imagine the past matters quite a lot because it ends up dictating who controls it. “The funny thing – the beautiful thing about history,” the historian muses, “Is that there’s always more. There’s almost always more out there, and it can be just a spot.”