In the Broadway musical Fun Home, the object of Alison Bechdel’s attention in college is a charismatic LGBT activist named Joan. As I watched Lucy J Skilbeck’s cabaret-play, JOAN, I found that Fun Home’s Joan had a historical antecedent. Skilbeck’s play focuses on the events leading up to Joan of Arc’s execution but it is firmly rooted in contemporary identity politics. Far from creating dissonance, this anachronistic approach fuses history and gender in a meaningful and explosive way.
In Skilbeck’s version, the Joan of Arc story becomes less about religious fervor (it’s there in part) and more about her conflict with the power of the state. Her telling of Joan of Arc’s rise and inevitable fall shifts focus to the relentless regulation of women and radical bodies by men in power. At a time where abortion rights, transgender bathroom bills, and gay marriage are still being fought over, Joan’s struggles take on renewed resonance.
After witnessing the death of her mother at the hands of the English, Joan (Lucy Jane Parkinson) is called to lead an army by visions of Saint Catherine. Dressing as a man she finds she is a successful leader and earns power and respect on the battlefield. When her efforts have restored King Charles to power in France she is no longer needed. But Joan is not ready to return to the life of a traditional young woman.
Parkinson’s Joan, with her partially shaved head, curls and dreadlocks, dressed in a Tank Girl T-shirt and wearing high tops, possesses a child’s sense of wonder and a fierce devotion to what she believes in–her fervor and dedication to Catherine. She also tastes a certain freedom when she starts living the life of a solider that she cannot shake from her mind.
Parkinson not only plays the precocious and energetic Joan with wide-eyed abandon but she takes on the voices of the men who try to influence and control Joan: Joan’s father who loved her but never understood her, King Charles who used her to regain power and then dismissed her, and the pro-English prosecutor, Pierre Cauchon, who tried to destroy her.
With some clever quick-changes, Parkinson physically transforms into these men–a dab of make-up and she has a beard; take off a bra, stuff your pants with it, and voila a “package.” But more importantly Parkinson slips into these male voices effortlessly (she is an award-winning drag king). It’s the men who sing the funny and peppy cabaret-style musical numbers throughout the show. But for all their colorful showboating, Joan is the heart and soul of the work.
With Skilbeck’s confident directorial hand, we make the gentle shift between light audience participation, cabaret spectacle, and serious theatre easily in this in the round production. She lures us in with a bit of sparkle and some joyful noise but her message lands with a gut punch.
Joan’s fights with king and country are about abnegating who she really is. She wishes to remain faithful to her beliefs, her love, and her desire but her options, as the men see it, are to recant or to die. For a time, she tries to ignore her feelings and appease these powerful men by dressing in a feminine fashion. She fumbles her way through trying to make a marriage match. But this is not who Joan is. When she reaches for the heavens to celebrate “my body, gloriously confusing” she speaks for generations. She grasps for the same thing many today fight for — the right to be accepted for who they are and who they love.