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Mystery of History 

ArtSpot Productions, a performance company founded by Kathy Randels and J. Hammons, has inaugurated a year's residency at the Contemporary Arts Center with its new show, The Maid of Orleans, which is billed as "a modern look at the story of Joan of Arc."

In the back warehouse, set designer Jeff Becker has placed a heavy steel-and-wood structure, composed of three ramps leading up to a circular platform. There are various ladders, free standing or leaning against the brick walls. A large, abstract projection (by Courtney Eagan) with a computer-generated feel glows and blinks on the far wall. A menacing medieval mood is suggested by three poles with wooden wheels on top -- reminiscent of the torture wheels in Pieter Bruegel's painting of the Crucifixion.

Joan of Arc herself is represented by three separate, but simultaneous, incarnations. There is Joan in black rags (Lisa Shattuck); Joan in a white gown (Randels) and the Joan who changes clothes often (Anne-Liese Juge Fox). This last Joan is sort of the "actual" Joan, while the others are sort of emanations or facets.

The black-clothed Joan begins the story. She is, she tells us, "all burned up" and "still waiting" in Limbo. Then, the narrative is picked up in flashback by the other two Joans. Meanwhile, J. Hammons interprets all the male characters from God Almighty to the sadistic Cockney jailer.

To give us a sense of Joan's psyche and the world she lives in, we are told crucial stories she heard in her youth: the battle in heaven in which Archangel Michael defeated Satan and the life of Saint Catherine, who preferred death to sexual submission.

With these childhood archetypes established, we move on to Joan's triumph and tragedy, culminating in her martyrdom. Most of the time, one Joan or other is telling us something about her life, while performing some simple action, like sliding books down a ramp. Often a second event is going on simultaneously. For instance, one Joan practices with a broad sword (while narrating); a second Joan runs around the set, barefoot and blindfolded, singing. The set itself is continually deconstructed and each piece is reused in a new way. Someone rolls down the ramp (while narrating). Someone crouches inside the ramp (while narrating). The ramp is set on its edge (while someone narrates). The platform is up-ended (while someone narrates), spun around (while someone narrates), etc. This is both imaginative and relentless.

Which brings us to the curious question of what is meant by "a modern look at the story of Joan of Arc." The Maid of Orleans is unmistakably "a modern look," if we are talking about technique. And many of the technical strokes are deft and memorable -- for instance, the wooden cutout soldiers that Joan slays and that later transform into the wooden fagots beneath her auto-de-fe. However, the "modernness" is restricted to the manner in which the story is told. By contrast, Peter Shaeffer's Amadeus, for example, is a fairly conventional drama, technically. But he connects to the subject matter in a fresh and, one feels, deeply personal way. And that makes his telling of the story resonate for us in a fashion we had never imagined.

Nonetheless, The Maid of Orleans is a carefully crafted, earnestly performed piece of theater. Here's hoping it is the imagination, rather than the relentlessness, that will prevail as ArtSpot's year at the CAC unfolds.

Across town at Rivertown Rep, the style is not modern, but "modurn" in David Hoover's delightful revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes. The pump boys are a quartet of musical grease monkeys, who run a garage just across highway 57 from the Double Cupp diner, owned and operated by the Cupp sisters, Rhetta and Prudie. The book is hardly more than an elaborate segue between song numbers about the ups and downs of romance, the joys (for the boys) of fishing, the even greater joys (for the girls) of getting big tips and the greatest joys (for one and all) of hopping into Uncle Bob's Winnebago and heading out to a Florida beach -- "If the weather is nasty, we'll hang around the motel, making love and watching color TV."

Greg DiLeo is our genial and mellifluous host and he's ably assisted by Leonard Raybon, Greg Straton and Marc Belloni; not to mention those gals behind the counter, Amy "cuter than a bessy bug" Alvarez and Tracey "Attitude" Collins.

Pump Boys is part spoof, part nostalgia, but mostly just a finger-poppin' rockabilly good time.

click to enlarge Keeping up with the Joans: Kathy Randels is but one - of three versions of the legendary martyr in ArtSpot - Productions' presentation of The Maid of - Orleans.
  • Keeping up with the Joans: Kathy Randels is but one of three versions of the legendary martyr in ArtSpot Productions' presentation of The Maid of Orleans.
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