“The chair recognizes Joan of Arc.”
It’s hard not to recognize her, in the theatrical sense — like the Joans we’ve seen, this one’s armor-clad, cross-bearing, and all-powerful. But is this Joan? Well, of course not; it’s merely a depiction.
But is the performer (a marvelously focused Bre Northrup) playing Joan, or a character who believes they are Joan? This is one of the central questions in Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, now playing through September 16 in the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church (155 Milton Street).
Director Emily Moler makes dynamic use of her staging Kopit’s absurdist play, setting it in the round and utilizing the subterranean locale’s low-budget though ample space. In fact a church basement may be the unlikely, appropriate setting for Chamber Music: the play actually takes place in a mental institution, so a church (with its rigid mores) lends itself winningly to this story’s strict asylum. The “Joan of Arc” and other lady icons, from Osa Johnson to Pearl White, inhabit this jail, and their meeting of the minds feels echoed in the opening of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s feminist anthem.
The Chamber Music women — led by “Susan B. Anthony” (Teresa Langford) — gather and converse, and besides some some teasing and uninspired name-calling, their meeting is without much narrative engine or conflict. The play, for a while, almost seems devoid of conflict but, conversely, is perhaps ridden with it: women have been belittled, abused, and condemned for centuries, and their treatment in this asylum is not so different.
And the role that exercises female suppression is the Man in White, played by Russell Sperberg in an icy cameo that portrays warden and doctor, preacher and beast. (Sperberg also provides the titular sound design, along with some delectable riffs on it.) The Man briefly appears when the women become rowdy, and his presence (menacing as it is) is soon missed. The women too deliver, though wavering accents and speedy dialogue sometimes detract from their otherwise solid performances. Vanessa Pereda-Felix is particularly strong as a feisty “Gertrude Stein.”
Despite their oppression, it is the women who come out on top. Soon they plot to attack the men’s ward, kindling a fire from the wood of Joan’s crucifix. (Keithlyn Parkman’s lighting design glowingly gives life to their plan.)
The spark for this fire, you could say, began just after the Man in White departs. The women sit in the audience seats, tossing around a pack of cigarettes in a playful feat of theater magic. For a moment, the explosive women are stilled — swimming in their own thoughts, planning what must be done to get ahead, sitting among us.