Review: The Lark by Baron's Men
by Michael Meigs

With a decade of public performances of Elizabethan and early modern theatre behind them, the Baron's Men offer an adroit and subtle change of mode at the lakeside Elizabethan-style Curtain Theatre. The Lark is a costume drama, richly draped, and it's set in 1430, the period exactly contemporaneous with the settings of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. It shares a principal character with them: Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans who rose from peasant obscurity to lead French troops against the occupying English. 



(photo by Jimmie Bragdon)



Jean Anouilh's drama is situated in the context of the ecclesiastical trial of captured Joan, carried out by clergy whose loyalties had shifted to the English forces controlling a huge swath of western and central France, including Paris. Robert Deike as the caustic-tongued Warwick complains at the high price he was obliged to pay to her French captors and makes it plain that he requires a conviction and an execution. The artifices of theatrical convention transform the court for the telling of Joan's history. Officials and witnesses slip out of sight, and Taylor Flanagan as Joan enacts the story, moving forward in time from her early teen years and unexpected visitations by Saint Michael and Saint Katharine. 


Scenes at the court reveal that Charles the Dauphin, uncrowned despite his mad father's death, is self-absorbed but bored, entirely unengaged in the dynastic battles that threaten him and his prospects of rule. Meanwhile Joan approaches bored local aristocrat Robert de Baudricourt, also played by Deike. She craftily eludes his lubricious advances and convinces him to provide her a horse and escort to offer her services to the uncrowned king. The rest, as they say, is history. 


Robert Deike as Warwick, Taylor Flanagan (photo by Maggie Thompson)



There is in fact a lot of history for Anouilh to draw upon. Court documents include testimony from 115 witnesses, and the papally authorized posthumous retriall later created lots more paper. Joan was burned at the stake as an heretic on May 30, 1430, in large part because of her insistence upon wearing male clothing, a practice held contrary to Biblical teaching. Twenty-six years later the appellate review absolved her, a verdict not useful for her personally, since her body had been incinerated three times and the ashes scattered in the Seine. It did solidly establish her as a national heroine. Unmentioned in Anouilh's text is the fact that in 1920 she was proclaimed a saint.


Joan's story plays out in attractive fashion on the boards of the Curtain Theatre. Flanagan's boyish enthusiasm enlivens the early scenes, and there's a cheerfully confiding reciprocity between her and Ryan Wilson as Charles. We don't get any significant portion of battle conflict; most of the jousting is rhetorical. Tmothy McKinney as Bishop Cauchon is concerned and gently persuasive, more concerned with Joan's spiritual salvation than with her physical preservation, despite the arrogance of the English. A couple of bad cops are balanced by a good cop -- Michael O'Keefe as the expostulating Promoter and Aaron Niemuth as the Jesuitical and Karloffian Inquisitor, contrasted with Tyler Haggard as the mild-spoken,  sandal-wearing Brother Ladvenu. Joan wavers, signs the confession but eventually renounces it.


The plot is necessarily formulaic and the story foretold, since we all know that the pyre awaits. But there's unexplored context here: Anouilh had lived and worked in Paris under the German occupation, staging his Antigone uncensured there in 1943 even though Creon as secular authority and Antigone as self-sacrificing rebel purist depicted elements that reflected the nation's dire political situation. The Lark, presented in 1952, offers similarly rich associations. A female innocent, inspired by holy visions, is on trial in an occupied land, condemned in advance by authorities who expect local church authorities, like a Vichy government, to work within existing legal structures to make sure their political demands are satisfied. Charles, formerly Joan's pal, shrugs in apology and keeps well clear of the messy business. Authorities both secular and clerical prevaricate and fail the pure spirit who embodies the French nation.


Anouilh kept politics and biography out of his  fifty-year career. The contemporary implications are subtle and ambiguous, an approach a bit like that of Arthur Miller in The Crucible, staged in New York a year later.


Taylor Flanagan (photo by Maggie Thompson)That was then; this is now. Our own day with changing concepts of gender and identity has reason to study anew the story of an inspired young woman of humble origins who assumes male traits, leadership and male garb. Joan is talked into her confession and persuaded to resume her woman's attire despite her plea that it makes her vulnerable to rape in her prison cell. Her renunciation responds to a renewal of her visions and her quest for purity of spirit.


Anouilh cheats a bit with the chronology to console his audience. The offstage burning is vividly evoked with lighting and the recoiling reactions of the players. Those at the trial turn away but Captain La Hire (Casey Jones) protests that they haven't presented the coronation, the supreme moment of Joan's short life. In an instant the grieving finale is replaced with a tableau vivant of a beaming Dauphin receiving his crown and becoming Charles VI, with Joan looking on.


And why 'The Lark'? Anouilh has his characters proclaim that this is not the story of an animal trapped and condemned in Rouen but instead the story of a lark singing in the open sky -- Joan in all her glory, in a story that ends happily.


Anouilh's comments in the program of the original staging emphasize that view. He concludes, 


You cannot explain Joan, any more than you can explain the tiniest flower growing by the wayside. There’s just a little living flower that has always known, ever since it was a microscopic seed, how many petals it would have and how big they would grow, exactly how blue its blue would be and how its delicate scent would be compounded. There’s just the phenomenon of Joan, as there is the phenomenon of a daisy or of the sky or of a bird. What pretentious creatures men are, if that’s not enough for them.




[CTXLT cover photo: Ryan Wilson, Taylor Flanagan, photo by Maggie Thompson)




Click to view the Baron's Men's broadsheet program for The Lark




The Lark
by Jean Anouilh
The Baron's Men

May 06 - May 28, 2016
The Curtain Theatre
7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr.
Austin, TX, 78730

Click HERE for tickets!