Theater Review: David Byrne Gives Joan of Arc the Imelda Treatment

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Photo: Joan Marcus

As you head to your seat for the new David Byrne musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, at the Public, you may smile upon seeing a painted stage drop bearing the legend, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Clever, you think: repurposing Mitch McConnell’s rebuke of Elizabeth Warren as a tribute to the Maid of Orléans. (That girl was nothing if not persistent.) Nor will the show’s opening moments disabuse you of the contemporary connections that Byrne and the show’s director, Alex Timbers, obviously want you to make. The first line of the first song is “What can one person do?” — a plaint Byrne could have lifted from any of a million recent tweets. It is soon followed by “Are we as helpless as it seems?” and “What does it cost to be free, not just survive?” By the time the song ends with Joan herself singing, “Let me be your Joan of Arc,” you can’t help but get the point: Despite the story’s setting in 15th-century France, the fire is here and now.

That’s the show’s hook and also, sad to say, its sinker. Of the many problems besetting this disappointing rock oratorio, which opened tonight, its implicit recommendation of a Catholic martyr as a model of current civic engagement is the most intractable. But also highly problematic is the way it positions her as a medieval rock star, more a Joan of Jett than Arc. The historical figure was, of course, a teenage girl who, upon hearing the voices of angels in the garden of her parents’ home in Domrémy, was convinced that she, personally, should rescue France from the English who occupied more than half of it. To do so, she became a soldier, a confidante to the feckless dauphin, and eventually a flaming symbol of the loneliness and fearlessness of faith. Joan of Arc: Into the Fire ticks off a checklist of these events accurately enough, from the annunciation to the stake and beyond. But turning the girl out as a punk rebel in pleather pants, and giving her a clutch of power ballads to sing — with banal pop lyrics like “I am stuck / I’m in between,” and “Now it’s all up to me,” and “Ev’rything I did I did for you” — feels like running the analogies the wrong way. Telling Joan’s story becomes more of an excuse for the rock concert than the other way around.

Not that you can’t see, and admire, all of the many things the show was trying to be, among them a gloss on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and a historical-reframe job in the manner of Hamilton. (It’s staged in the Public’s Newman Theater, where Hamilton began, and its mixed-period costumes, by Clint Ramos, smell faintly of that show’s aftershave.) But mostly what it’s trying to be is a worthy follow-up to Byrne and Timbers’s Here Lies Love, a disco biography of Imelda Marcos that was a stunner at the Public in 2013 and 2014. (Fatboy Slim was a co-author.) Like that show, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire looks to a contemporary musical genre to deepen and complicate a character who has become an icon; Here Lies Love did so by finding in the thin melodies and trite lyrics of disco a powerful expression of Marcos’s unchangingly saccharine self-image. Song can do that: make even a creep sympathetic. But song can also flatten a character — especially one who’s sympathetic from the start — when it offers no relevant insight or, worse, as happens here, offers irrelevant insight incessantly. There are several jaunty numbers — one featuring a speculum — about testing Joan’s virginity; another song, called “Body Parts,” in which Joan’s inquisitors try to coerce her recantation by showing her the instruments of torture that await her, is a calypso.

Eventually those inquisitors find Joan guilty of hubris: pridefully believing her own voices instead of bowing to the authority of the church. Hubris, on a smaller scale, seems to be operating in the creation of the show as well. Byrne is a very talented composer, and Timbers an unusually imaginative director, but this story, in its largeness and mystery, has defeated them. The last thing you want such a tale to be is silly, but with its Wikipedia pacing, any attempt at drama in the staging looks like sped-up film. (The whole thing is just 90 minutes.) It takes but one chorus of a song called “A Prayer for Everyone” for Joan to convert the French troops to her cause, and the hardworking ensemble of ten men playing several roles each must do a lot of colorful semaphore to fill in the blanks where characterization should have occurred. As a result, there are way too many mimed soldierly intimacies of the chucking-shoulders variety, some unconvincing battle scenes, and a few underpowered training dances by Steven Hoggett, possibly left over from Timbers’s Rocky. Relying on these many brief exertions to produce climaxes, the show winds up with none. Even the stake is kitsch.

On the bright side, but not literally, Justin Townsend’s rock-concert lighting is as dark and pretty and purple as it should be; the vocal arrangements by Byrne and Kris Kukul are rich and lovely. And as Joan, Jo Lampert, a Brooklyn-based singer and DJ, is a vocal powerhouse and fearless stage animal. It’s not her fault that the character as written is such an unplayable patchwork of clichés and “timely” parallels. Indeed, I’d like to see Lampert in the Shaw, which, while accepting the fundamental mystery of Joan, imposes a coherent and modern philosophy on the story. For Shaw, the crux of the matter is faith in the self as superior to systems: He moots the specifically religious question as much as possible by painting Joan as a classic nonconformist, killed not for her beliefs but for her lack of obedience.

Without that framework, her story becomes extremely problematic as a parable of resistance in Trump’s America. Looked at squarely, from the perspective of a presumably atheistic East Coast elite, Joan was a religious zealot, possibly schizophrenic, and a warmongering nationalist demagogue to boot. Oops! So, who is Elizabeth Warren in this comparison? Who is Trump? And who, finally, are we?

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is at the Public Theater through April 30.

Theater: David Byrne Gives Joan of Arc the Imelda Treatment