24 September 2007

Juana: Concept and Design
pt. 1 of 3

An epic play, a pageant that reveals the hidden truth behind history's most maligned and misunderstood monarch -- this is the story of Juana. Labeled "Juana the Mad" by her captors, this propaganda line has dogged her true story through the ages: That the death of her young husband drove her insane; that she inherited this madness from her grandmother.

Paul Casey's play reveals quite a different reality: A strong-willed, intelligent woman who was seen as a threat to the established patriarchal structure of post-Medieval Europe; an opponent of the Inquisition; and a champion of the common people. Juana embodied the spirit of the Renaissance in a country that was desperately clinging to the last vestiges of the Dark Ages.

This November, we will tell Juana's story. Sixty-plus puppets, brought to the stage by twenty talented performers shall take the audience on an epic voyage through three kingdoms, over turbulent oceans, through the darkest of nights, and ultimately to the truth.

The puppet count is at 69, not including any toy theater or shadow puppets. We will be using a variety of rod-based puppets (pageant puppets, westernized bunraku-style puppets, etc.) performed out in the open (i.e. after the fashion of Julie Taymor/Avenue Q.)

Paul's play is very cinematic. We cross continents in the blink of a scene change, cross vast amounts of time in mere moments. To help handle these transitions, I'm utilizing toy theater. (As it so happens, a few of these transitions involve large crowd scenes. Yet another reason to utilize toy theater.)

Paul has postulated that Juana was able to keep up with what was going on outside her prison walls by way of extended or remote viewing. At the same time she was in Burgos, a group of Christian mystics were studying this phenomenon. In our play, Juana experiences two visions. We will play out these visions with shadow puppets, a form of puppetry uniquely suited to dreams and visions.

Juana was was a threat to the establishment, and was removed from power. She was placed in the room without light "for her own good," and every attempt was made by her captor (the devious Marquis of Denia) to drive her insane. It was a nightmare scenario, and one that Juana briefly emerged from in 1520 when she presided over the legislative assembly in Spain, demonstrating a soundness of mind and intelligence as she attempted to transform Spain into a democracy.

The use of puppets in this production will enable an expressionistic take on her story. The audience will experience the mad house in which Juana found herself: surrounded by monsters who meant to do her in. In the case of Fernando, he will be a nine-foot-tall pageant style puppet. (This particular point, how Juana perceived those around her and how this works with the puppets is a point I discussed with Paul. He was rather excited about the idea, and took a copy of my initial sketches to show around.)

Furthermore, we will be designing the puppets and creating an environment informed by the sort of things that would have served as nightmare fuel for a much younger Juana, growing up in the castles and cathedrals of the Catholic Monarchs. Specifically, Late Medieval and Early Renaissance religious art.

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