SAINT JOAN, BETRAYED, a preview: Really cool masks and puppety things

Aaron Cromie, one half of a double-act with Mary Tuomanen, describes with relish the process of creating their latest Fringe piece, Saint Joan, Betrayed.

Mary Tuomanen as the Maid of Orleans in SAINT JOAN, BETRAYED. 2013 Philly Fringe Festival.
Mary Tuomanen as the Maid of Orleans in SAINT JOAN, BETRAYED.

For Saint Joan, Betrayed, the two will tell the massive and idiosyncratic story of Joan of Arc with puppets, toy theaters, and their own voices and bodies. “Scenes are inspired by the objects that are made,” says Cromie, “and then objects are inspired by events that happen.”

“We really picked the limitations to help it become extraordinary.”

The story of Jeanne d’Arc has fascinated people for centuries, ever since she helped win the Hundred Years War for the French, and was burnt to death by her enemies.

“Our approach to this piece is not to make a biography of Joan of Arc but rather to see what cult of personality came about it,” Cromie says. “She really stirred up a lot of interest in her but there came a point where people were like—does she know what she’s doing?”

And it was her personality which helped Joan, a country girl with no military experience, to rally the diminishing courage of the French and route the English. It’s also what got her into trouble with religious authorities.

Saint Joan opens with three types of toy or puppet theater in which Cromie illustrates the saints Joan saw in the field. “There’s a piece with fractal backgrounds, exploring different images that get put into these things when telling the story of Saint Michael. Then there’s a crankie—that’s just a scrolling background—and the last one is a flip-book.”

Audiences will recall the crankie and flip-books Cromie constructed for BRAT Productions’ The Last Plot in Revenge, which he designed in June.

After the triptych, Tuomanen will emerge, somehow, into the French countryside, to tell the story of Joan’s final battle and capture.

“Mary has always been a chameleon, and I think that people will really dig how she can become so many different things.”

Despite the sweeping subject matter, the play is at its core simply constructed. There is almost no tech, it’s less than an hour long, and everything fits into two suitcases.

“The whole idea was we wanted it to be the ultimate festival show. You could do it in schools, classrooms—you could do it on a bus.” He laughs. “Not that we’d ever do that.”

Cromie’s direction and design has made a name for him in Philly and internationally. In particular, his penchant for constructing miniature theaters, and his invention in bringing intricately designed puppets to life, has delighted audiences over and over again.

Saint Joan, Betrayed runs September 5-14, 2013, at Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 1340 S 13th St.

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