Women who make trouble make history. Once there was a female pope who turned the Vatican upside down, or so the legend goes, only one of the women Ecuadoran actress Joan Estrella came to celebrate in her sensational, stand-up comedy show.
Loca La Juana/That Crazy Joan packed a wallop last weekend at the Teatro de la Luna’s 17th International Festival of Hispanic Theater. This Gargantuan satire that Estrella wrote and performed, was an exposure of the historical bias against women. This powerhouse comedian, dressed in a sleek tux with white satin lapels, started with her given name. Joan, or Juana, inspired her to go for the juicy roles she reincarnated. Estrella did lightning fast changes. The costumes, displayed on stage, were grotesque works of art in themselves, appropriate for a Carnival or Mardi Gras. (designed by Juana Carpio & Enrique Vascones). Not only did she reveal her personal hang-ups and phobias but also she also delivered eye-openers about historical Joans, like Joan of Arc. Why were they called mad?
The Dauphin wanted to make 19-year old Joan a saint for political selfish reason. He wanted to gobble up land. The Dauphin chided Joan to be chaste, pure and virginal. But Joan desired an army, to become a saint as a warrior. So the Dauphin empowered her because he was greedy, drooling over the chance to grab back French territory from England. In one hysterical, wonderful moment, Estrella became Joan of Arc, bouncing up and down in a black-hooped skirt, waving a club, laughing madly, and riding into battle in a shiny breastplate. In the end, however, Joan of Arc was abused and burned alive because she was different, heard voices, and believed she spoke with God.
But coming back as narrator, Estrella made a reasonable point. If talking with God is crazy then we are all crazy because we believe in speaking with God when we pray.
The two other Joans may be less well known. Joanna of Castile married Ferdinand and reigned as Queen of Spain for 12 years, from 1504 to 1516, Estrella told us. Joanna of Castile was a highly intelligent daughter of the famous King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who sent Columbus to America. Joan fell deeply in love and married the handsome Philip, who started the Habsburg dynasty. But he swallowed a mackerel bone the wrong way and died. Joanna went insane from grief, and became obsessed with her embalmed husband. After becoming queen of Spain, however, she proved herself to be an intelligent, wise, well-educated, leader, who spoke several languages. But she persisted in taking Philip’s body everywhere with her. Eventually, she was declared mentally ill, by her scheming politically-motivated relatives, who dubbed her Joanna the Mad and locked her up in first a castle, then a nunnery for 47 years. But was she really unfit to rule? Compared to modern therapies like electroshock, treatments for depression are madness, Estrella opined, aiming her indictments straight out to the audience.
But by far, my favorite and most outrageous of all high points of Estrella’s one-woman show took us back to the Middle Ages (specific dates are in dispute). Perhaps in the 9th century A.D., there was an incomparably well-educated woman who dressed up in clerical robes and became the Pope, named Pope Joan, who loved the processions. At this point, Estrella, the actress, donned a gigantic, baggy white costume that draped down her body from what appeared to be a gauzy white halo, emanating from her head.
Pope Joan, a female male impersonator, was a brilliant girl who dressed herself in white robes and was accepted as a man. Only one problem: Joan had a lover, named Lambert. Nonetheless, the disguise worked well enough for Joan to reign as pope and become a legend.
Estrella’s reenactment told the rest of the story although some historians still challenge its truth. Everything went well for a while. Then, one day during a procession, Pope Joan gave birth to a baby boy. To recreate the event, Estrella as Pope Juana crossed the stage imperially, accompanied by liturgical piped-in music, until out popped a puppet of a baby, a rag doll prop. After that, allegedly Pope Joan was stoned, scorned, castigated, called “The Whore of Babylon…..the origin of evil,” and killed. Thereafter, the “sacred way,” Estrella told us, where the pope paraded, became the “shunned street.” The Holy Pontiffs avoided that street because of the shameful, female pope. To this day, there are conflicting versions of what really happened.
When Estrella stepped out of character and resumed her role as narrator, she hammered home the point of her rambling monologue: “Women such as these have been troubling to the order of things….and it’s been more convenient to make nullities of them, to erase them from history, .to glorify them, restore their piety, to Joannafy them…to treat them as Mad Women.”
Estrella was funny and refreshing because of her impeccable timing. She sensed her audience and pounced with her punch lines. “Madness is relative,” she concluded as she updated the past by comparing it to the present. Craziness is in. Lady Gaga, for instance, when she wears a dress made of “steaks and sausages,” is exalted, Estrella said.
The ultimate irony is that the Crazy Joans of the past have a special individuality that separates them from all the other Joans on social media, who recommend the trendiest therapies on the Web. There is an insanity about aromatherapy, or “hair follicle strengthening and anger management,” Estrella opined. What’s crazier than women at the gym talking about liposuction, or eyelid tucks and butt lifts? What seems crazy to one person can seem normal to another. But in spite of all this modern madness, “Reason remains alive,” the entertainer said, ending on an upbeat note.
Performed in Spanish with dubbing through headsets by Marcela Ferlito.
This show closed on Sunday, October 26. But Teatro de la Luna’s International Hispanic Theater Festival continues Oct 31 – Nov 23, 2014.
Next is Pasos al Azar/Random Steps from Spain.
Details and tickets.
Loca La Juana/That Crazy Joan . Written by and starring Juana/Joan Estrella . Directed by Pablo Aguirre Andrade . Produced by ProduccionesJE for Teatro de la Luna’s XVII International Festival of Hispanic Theater . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.