"A dangerous and terrible act" is how surrealist Antonin Artaud defined the "true" theater, but it's an equally apt epithet for the bloody 15th century insurrection led by Joan of Arc.
Though they would have had few points of agreement in a theological debate, the combative theater director and the cowled crusader had something fundamental in common: Both were visionaries excommunicated from their respective cultures because of the threat they posed to the norm. Joan, of course, was burned as a witch; Artaud was exiled by the surrealists (not an easy feat in a movement with no rules) and was ultimately institutionalized for mental illness.
Taking freewheeling associative liberties that Artaud himself would have approved, About Productions explores intriguing parallels between the two historical figures in "Vox," the third and most challenging installment in the Loco Motion Festival at Actors' Gang.
A collaborative creation by Theresa Chavez, Rose Portillo and Alan Pulner--laced with extensive excerpts from Artaud's writings--this strikingly original play-within-a-play involves an actress (Portillo) who finds herself cast as Joan under the direction of Artaud (Jon David Weigand), in what becomes an archetypal descent into the martyr's legend. The juxtaposition isn't entirely arbitrary--Artaud acted in Carl Dreyer's classic film "Le Passion de Jeanne D'Arc," and a brief clip of his performance is projected on hanging fabric as part of Tracy Young's multimedia staging.
Bewildered by the esoteric performance demands of Artaud--who specialized in unfinished productions--the struggling Joan gamely tries to keep up with her fellow cast members (Daniel Parker and Karen James), who are better accustomed to their director's idiosyncrasies. Amid interludes of pseudo-ritualistic poses and abrupt scene shifts, Joan (and by extension, Artaud) undergoes alternating rigorous examinations by her nemesis Bishop Cauchon (James) and a modern-day Freudian analyst (Parker), who try to explain away the voices she hears as either witchcraft or paranoid schizophrenia. Inevitably, we realize that while their vocabularies and methodologies may differ, both inquisitors are driven to persecute radicals for violating the social "contract of normalcy."
Though heady and provocative, "Vox" employs considerable humor to deflate any hint of pretentious self-importance. Whimsical touches include Weigand's portrayal of a fashion-conscious transvestite offering vapid commentary for our times and the ensemble's sudden lapses into mechanized dance steps to the strains of the Motels' "Only the Lonely."
A specialized piece to be sure, this isn't exactly "Vox" Populi. But for those who like their angst served with wit, intelligence and style, this sharp-edged plunge into the unconscious is a welcome alternative to collective unconsciousness.
EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the playwrights, Theresa Chavez, is married to Daily Calendar Editor Oscar Garza.
* "Vox," Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $15 ($25 for closing benefit Sunday). (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.