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One-Woman Show Reveals Human Side of Joan of Arc

January 08, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

Don't tell Juni Dahr that Joan of Arc is a heroine.

"She's not heroic," the gorgeously cheekboned Norwegian actress said firmly. "She was not a saint (although canonized in 1920). She was not an angel. She had doubts. She's real . It's important that people know that. She was flesh and blood, a peasant girl who lived close to nature, walked in the fields with her cows. She cut her hair short, was one of the first women to put on men's clothes. I find her remarkable--but very human."

It's that human side of the legend that Dahr hopes to celebrate in "Joan of Arc: Vision Through Fire," a one-woman show created by Dahr and director John Morrow. The piece, which combines original texts and actual transcripts from Joan's 1430 trial for witchcraft and heresy, opens next Friday at the Wallenboyd, the second entry in Pipeline's foreign theater festival.

"I've been interested in Joan for years," Dahr said, "and I wanted to work on her. Of course, there has been written a lot about Joan of Arc," said Dahr, who frequently reverts to Norwegian sentence structures despite her ease with English. "Books. Plays. Shaw, whom most people think of when you say Joan of Arc, is just one of many (writers who focused on her). There are histories, big libraries. The first poet writing about her after the Battle of Orleans in 1430 was a woman (Christine de Pisan). She said of Joan: 'What an honor to the feminine sex.' Then there were transcripts from the trial, which is what most people have built their stories on.

"She has some beautiful lines," said the actress, an 11-year member of the National Theatre of Norway. "It's all written down, recorded from the trial. She stood there for a year: in from prison, up to trial, interrogated all the time. And she talked about the voices, voices that dragged her down." Dahr smiled. "How do you believe in all this heavy stuff? How do you relate it to today? She was 13 when she began hearing the voices. What does it mean when you begin to believe in something bigger than you? I wanted to find out."

Dahr's treatment takes Joan from childhood memories to her plans to "save France" from civil war (which she did, with an army provided by the king), to betrayal, arrest, trial and death at the stake.

"There's so much speculation about what went on in prison," she said. "Everyone has their own point of view, which was very interesting to read. He thinks she does this, and he thinks she does that; it's just so many men who've written about her." Dahr chuckled. "They all think they know her. But it's so complex, so deep. And I don't have all the answers."

In the past, she pointed out, some of the facts have been airbrushed out of historical texts--including the omission of Joan's recanting of her earlier confession.

"Very many people writing about her don't take that up at all. They want to make her into a heroine--and heroines don't have faults. But for me, her strongest moment is when she says: 'OK, I have to go my way. If you have to burn me, you will have to do it. . . . Even if you separate my soul from my body, I will say what I've already said.' And she's 18 ! She's so young, so unafraid.

"It makes me wonder, are there any Joans of Arc today? Where would we find (them)? What (are their qualities)?"

Dahr, who was classically trained at the State Academy of Performing Arts in Oslo and later studied in Poland at the Grotowski Laborotorium, at New York University and the Actors' Studio, is no less demanding in her own life.

"It's so easy to be trapped by what people tell you," said the actress, who will star in a Norwegian film version of "Peer Gynt" this spring. "I've done a lot of huge parts in theater--Ibsen, Shakespeare--trying to break images, break through that surface thing.

"You can look in a magazine and see beautiful faces and they're great. But I'm not interested in that, and I don't think other people are. Theater is human . Of course, looks help. But as an actress, you have to have something inside. You have faults, you do bad things, good things. And you try to keep yourself alive by questioning."

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