Joan the Witch (2011)

Joan the Witch, as a story, is something that has been rolling around in my brain for some time now, but I haven’t endeavored to actually write a stage version of that history until recently.  In 1429 Gilles de Rais fought alongside Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans. On October 26, 1440, he was executed for the ritual murders of over a hundred children.  This is history, often stranger than fiction.  But in the case of Gilles and Joan, the story is something beyond fascinating.   Joan the Witch dramatizes the events that lead from one execution to the other.

Kids play in the woods in Act II

As the record goes, Gilles de Rais sacrificed over 100 children to Satan, profaning their bodies in ways that even I am not comfortable saying.  It’s messed up.  But I explored the idea that he did these horrible things in vengeful anger after Joan of Arc was wrongly executed, that ” with the death of such a perfect creature, God still would not intervene.  So what will make that God intervene?  What will make the heavens tear apart and plunge down the hand of God and stop the horror?  What on earth does God give a damn about?”  It’s something that I took for granted when I first read about him, but his motivations are – historically speaking – a mystery.  When he does appear in art, his motivations are often oversimplified or just ignored.  For example, “Gilles de Rais, who bankrupted his noble estate with a theatrical production, entitled “The Siege of Orleans,” which he wrote and directed, was the inspiration for the story of Bluebeard. Even when he first appears in George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” he is an eccentric Bluebeard: “Gilles de Rais, a young man of 25, very smart and self-possessed, and sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court, comes in. He is determined to make himself agreeable, but lacks natural joyousness, and is not really pleasant. In fact when he defies the Church some eleven years later he is accused of trying to extract pleasure from horrible cruelties, and hanged. So far, however, there is no shadow of the gallows on him. He advances gaily to the Archbishop.”  In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I,” where Joan is immortalized as a Ba’alist blood-sorcerer, Gilles is removed from the plot altogether.  Nevertheless, it’s significant that a British playwright would maintain the idea of Joan as a witch, nearly 200 years after her death.  In fact, Joan was not canonized as a Saint until 1920.

Actors study their lines during rehearsal

And that becomes a major theme in “Joan the Witch,” with Gilles becoming a monster yet fighting to preserve the memory of Joan as the virtuous Maid of Orleans.  ” You do one thing, people remember another,” as Gilles says in the play.  It never occurred to me before that Gilles may never have committed sorcery either, but he is the subject of historical debate as well.  After writing and producing “The Siege of Orleans,” a massive theatrical spectacle on such a scale that it bankrupted Gilles’ estate, he attracted unwanted attention from his fellow noblemen.  It is possible that Gilles’ execution was motivated entirely by secular jealousy, and he had nothing to do with the Devil.  Of course, popular culture now recognizes that Joan was not a witch, and her execution was motivated by secular jealousy masked by religion.  Gilles has not been so lucky, and whether he actually did it or not is probably lost to history.  So Joan the Witch is satisfied to leave it a mystery.  It dramatizes Gilles as a vengeful Satanist with the alchemist Francesco Prelati who was executed with him, but the thematic specter of Joan as a Witch hangs over the entire thing, as a reminder that this is just a play, and encourages the audience to question what the truth is.  At least, that’s the hope.

Colin Fewell as Gilles murdering Dan Vuillaume as The Actor, with Alex Boroff and Emily Veno

We premeired the play on October 26th, the 571st anniversary of Gilles’ death, at a Halloween Gala event with a costume contest at the Den Theatre in Chicago IL.  Live preshow music was provided by Aaron Wilhoft.  The original cast was as follows:

Tully Bertorelli – Joan / Francesco Prelati
Alexandra Boroff – Second Clown/ Child / Inquisitor
Colin Fewell – Gilles de Rais
Emily Veno – First Clown / Child
Daniel Vuillaume – The Actor
Fight Design by Orion Couling
Written and Directed by Bohrs Hoff

We were able to extend our run into November at the Solarium, who also provided our rehearsal space for this production.

Clowning during the Preshow

I am incredibly proud of this show, which I hope to continue working on and develop into more productions.  It’s a very dark show, and seemed to have a profound impact on a number of audience members.  Sequences of burning, throat-slitting, and hanging are all presented onstage, but in highly theatrical and detached staging.  For example, when Gilles is finally executed, the Actor explains “an imprecise measurement allows for a slower fracture-separation of the neck vertebrae.  Asphyxiation is the process of death by oxygen deprivation. A bag is traditionally placed over the victim’s head to censor the effects of asphyxiation: protrusion of the eyeballs, bulging of the tongue, the deep purple discoloration of the face as blood fails to deliver oxygen to the brain. The limbs move uncontrollably,” while Gilles is simply leaning on Joan’s back, a noose suspended behind him on the diagonal.  It’s suprisingly disturbing, but doesn’t require any realistic effects to be disturbing.  Though Gilles was hung to death, historically, the script also describes the common practice of being drawn and quartered. The play is bookended with accurate details, but the human interactions between are admittedly of my own invention, only touching on key moments of the French Lord’s biography.

Emily Veno and Alex Boroff in the final scene

Please visit our Contact Page if you are interested in reading the script or have any questions about this haunting show.  It certainly worked well for Halloween, but it’s a fascinating story for any season.  But, since it is such a heavy subject matter, I would like to end this post with a delightfully scathing insult: “Don’t you dare laugh, you pathetic, pickled afterbirth.”

Colin Fewell and Tully Bertorelli have some fun at fight call

Happy Halloween, everyone!  See you soon with some new posts from the Shakespeare Act a Day project, plus news about our upcoming fourth season.

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  1. […] Act-of-Shakespeare-a-Day Project to focus on Blunt Objects Theatre’s Halloween production, Joan the Witch, and now there’s only a few weeks left in the year.  Oh well.  Might as well jump right […]



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