Written by Joseph Cermatori
The new musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire begins with an unmissable message, hand-painted on the curtain of the Public's Newman Theater: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." Mitch McConnell's now notorious complaint about Elizabeth Warren is your first clue that this show wants to be very relevant.
What that relevance might be is anybody's guess, though, even after ninety minutes of high-octane rock from David Byrne and energetic staging by Alex Timbers. A clear bid to follow on the heels of 2013's Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers's widely praised first collaboration at the Public, Joan misses the mark by a wide margin. Despite impressive vocals and dancing by the show's young and athletic ensemble, this show suffers from meager, often banal book- and lyric-writing (also Byrne), unwittingly raising the question of just how important Saint Joan's story is to our time.
In the lead, Jo Lampert is, naturally, the main attraction. Appearing early on in a muslin frock with long, Meredith Monk–style braids, she quickly jumps into a faux-hawk and head-to-toe leather gear to diva-belt Byrne's unremarkable lyrics: "Take my dress and take my hair/Sword and fire be my prayer/I'm not a boy and I'm not a girl/The King of Heaven rules my world." But Joan doesn't know what to make of its protagonist's radical butchness — what queer theorist Jack Halberstam calls "female masculinity" — and struggles to get off the ground from there.
For a famously tormented icon, Joan shows little internal struggle or uncertainty; in her campaign to oust the English occupiers from France, she wins support from her countrymen with no real resistance or dramatic conflict. "Have faith, be strong" is her earnest mantra, repeated throughout the evening, but her insights don't get any deeper. It's unclear what makes her so compelling to those around her — or what elevates her above mere fanaticism. Meanwhile, the show trudges from one power ballad to the next, and Joan goes to her pyrotechnic death crying familiar but decontextualized slogans like "It's the fire next time" and "You can't kill an idea." What exactly the big idea is remains unclear.
Of course, the problem isn't that the underlying story lacks political meaning; Brecht, for example, adapted it three separate times between 1930 and 1952. It's rather that Byrne and Timbers (who have been working on this show since well before the election) want to keep emphasizing the supposed timeliness with gestures that are flatfooted and superficial, like the ham-fisted curtain quote. Persist, have faith, be strong — of course, but we also need to think in deeper, more careful and specific terms about the world. That, not showy proclamations, is how we mount a resistance that doesn't end up in flames.