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LA Theater Review

St. Joan and the Dancing Sickness

Somewhere in rural Louisiana in 1999, a community is forced to face up to the cruelty and corruption of its bosses, the poisoning of its land, the collaboration of the church in the community's abuse, and the neglect it suffers under the state government.

Vividly portrayed by a sadly winsome Miriam Glover, Jeannette, a cruelly abused black teenager, is visited by a strange sepulchral nun (Tina Preston), whom only the girl can see. The nun's commanding spiritual message is for Jeanette to "dance for your life." As unwilling and awkward as Jeanette is, she finds herself inhabited by a magical force that compels her to share the nun's command to pass along the spirit that has taken over the girl's soul. Unwittingly, Jeanette becomes a lightning rod for the townspeople: an alcoholic state senator (crazy wonderful Sharon Sharth); her aide and goad, Raphael, the people's pastor (fiercely fervent Willie C. Carpenter); and a junk artist (Andrew Schlessinger), who discovers Jeanette under a bridge, shows her kindness, and is inspired by the young girl to produce the masterwork of his life.

Jeanette's message, in her new incarnation as a media messiah, spurs the downtrodden and abused to stand up and fight. Those who had exploited her now fear her power as a leader and ultimately betray her. Julie Hébert's play begins slowly as a piece that's hard to pin down as narrative—with bits of seemingly scattered action occurring on different parts of the stage—but eventually the play coalesces into a moving, disturbing, and quite powerful document. Several brilliant performances, under Randee Trabitz's informed direction, make this a first look to remember.

Presented by and at the Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Aug. 28-Sept. 13. Variable schedule. (323) 882-6912.

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