Review: ‘Joan of Arc’ and the Monotony of Sainthood

Via The New York Times


Jo Lampert in the musical "Joan of Arc: Into the Fire." Photo by Sara Krulwich

Written by Ben Brantley

Is it heresy to observe that saints are bores? O.K., maybe not in stained glass windows or old master paintings, where they’re frozen in transcendent agony amid instruments of torture.

But as the focus of dynamic narratives, saints tend to be as tedious as most monomaniacs. They’re always so sure of their purpose and their destiny, so immune to argument and temptation. Where’s the suspense, the conflict, the drama in such single-mindedness?

That’s a question that is definitely not answered in “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” which opened in a blaze of monotony at the Public Theater on Wednesday night. But it’s probably another query that will loom largest in your mind as you watch this 90-minute rock oratorio: How did the immense talents behind “Here Lies Love” come up with something so inert?

Written by the pop star and composer David Byrne (with Fatboy Slim) and directed by Alex Timbers, “Here Lies Love” charted the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand, to a disco beat.

That 2013 site-specific production, which transformed the Marcoses’ world into a dance floor of ruthless ambition, suggested a new generation’s answer to that earlier musical portrait of a tyrant’s self-serving wife, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita.”

As long as we’re thinking in terms of Lloyd Webber-Rice collaborations, I suppose you could call “Joan of Arc” Mr. Byrne and Mr. Timbers’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Like that rock opera from the early 1970s, “Joan” follows the path to martyrdom of a revolutionary in this case a peasant girl who donned armor and led France to victory over the occupying forces of England — who took her marching orders directly from God.

Now I never thought I’d find myself preferring music by Mr. Lloyd Webber to that of Mr. Byrne, whose albums with Talking Heads played throughout my young adulthood. But let’s face it. “Jesus” is a lot more fun than “Joan” — more impudent, more anarchic and even, in its consideration of the downside of first-century celebrity, more relevant to the present day.

Mr. Timbers, who again directs, and Mr. Byrne, who wrote the new show’s book as well as its music and lyrics, might argue that the austere Joan is of even more searing topicality than the materialistic Mrs. Marcos was. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, Mr. Timbers said that “with the horrors of the context of today,” there was affirmative pertinence in the message that “even the most unlikely individual can change the course of history through will and self-belief.”

Well, maybe, though I’m not sure the Joan embodied here by the gifted but ill-used Jo Lampert should be taken as a paradigm for today’s wearers of pink pussy hats. This is someone who proceeds without reflection or internal debate, and who knows she’s right no matter what anyone else says. She is, in other words, a fanatic, which is a scary thing to be these days.

Not that “Joan of Arc” invites sophisticated ideological debate. It’s as unswerving in its course as its heroine and just about as reverential. We first meet her, amid thundering electric power chords and smashing LED lighting displays, spreading fortitude and cheer amid a strapping all-male chorus who have been down in the mouth under the yoke of the English.

Before her appearance, this hapless prologue of a chorus was singing: “What does it cost to be free?” and “What does it mean to believe?” But Joan is the kind of gal who turns questions marks into exclamation points. Here she is, in iconographic silhouette and sleek biker leathers (Clint Ramos did the costumes), intoning her watchwords with the clarion summons of a trumpet: “Have faith, be strong.”

That’s basically all there is to her message, but it seems there’s force in repetition. (Variations on the theme include: “Fear not, doubt not” and “I can’t go back, I must go on.”) Joan’s credo is already fully formed when the show flashes back to her first encounter with a French captain, Baudricourt (Michael James Shaw), whom she begs to let her join the army.

He and his macho legions are skeptical for about 30 seconds, but then they’re on board in a big way. The same thing happens when Joan meets the young, uncrowned Dauphin (Kyle Selig), and the British troops, who fall like a house of cards in a hurricane before her righteous wrath.

Things do get a little tricky once Joan is captured and subjected to trial as a witch by a tribunal led by Bishop Cauchon (Sean Allan Krill). Joan briefly wonders why her God has forsaken her, which means Ms. Lampert sings even louder than usual.

But pretty soon, Joan reclaims the strength of her supporting power chords. And even after her death, the show stays on message, thanks to an exhortative turn by the production’s only other female character, Joan’s mother (Mare Winningham, in an 11 o’clock appearance).

The music to which this familiar story is set is also highly familiar, bringing to mind the 1980s poperettas of not only Mr. Lloyd Webber but also the Boublil-Schonberg collaborations “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” in their most martial modes. In “Joan,” Mr. Byrne’s musical wit surfaces only in a calypso-beat number given to the tribunal (“Many Parts, One Body”).

If the score often suggests a rock hootenanny at a with-it, youth-courting church, the design brings to mind a sound and light show that might be whipped up for holiday spectacles at such an institution, albeit of a sophisticated order. The Christian psychedelic visuals have been devised by Christopher Barreca (set), Justin Townsend (lighting), Darrel Maloney (projections) and Jeremy Chernick (special effects).

The supporting ensemble of musclemen are required to simulate battle postures with an awkwardness that is all the more surprising since they’ve been overseen by the usually inspired Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch”), the movement director here. Ms. Lampert, who has emerged as an original vocalist in other shows, is a more punk-androgynous Joan than, say, Ingrid Bergman was on screen.

But basically, her character allows no room for the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of which convincing portraiture are made. She is unvaryingly, achingly sincere. “There’s no more time for dancing, there’s no more time for games,” she sings, early in the show. If only she hadn’t take that advice quite so earnestly to heart.

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