Written by Leah Greenblatt
If you’re wondering whether Into the Fire will be a contemporary retelling of Joan of Arc, the virgin idol burnished by nearly six centuries of legend, you’ll only have to walk into the Newman Theater’s 299-seat space to know; greeting audience members as they filter in is a large canvas scrim at center stage scrawled with the words “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
That wry nod to a persecuted female of much more recent vintage is a signal of what’s to come: a thoroughly modernized Maid of Orléans, body poured into black pleather and head shaved into a sort of reverse gutter-punk mullet, belting out music and lyrics penned by iconic Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who also debuted the 2013 Imelda Marcos bio-musical Here Lies Love at the Public in 2013, to wide acclaim).
Jo Lampert, the actress anointed in the title role, is probably best known for touring and performing with avant indie musician tUne-yArDs, and it’s no big surprise that director Alex Timbers — the man behind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and co-creator of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle — overlays his heroine’s 15th-century existence with myriad 21st-century touches, from the colorblind casting and stark set design (by Christopher Barreca) to the projected supertitles that fill the audience in on geographical transitions and jump-cut histories.
And of course, there are the songs: With only scant dialogue, Fire leans heavily on lyrics and melody to tell of Joan’s improbable rise from provincial French teenager to holy warrior to storied martyr burned at the stake, all before her 20th birthday. Stylistically, the soundtrack moves from rock-opera arias to almost Disney-esque power ballads and the occasional electro-boogie shuffle, though it’s hard to immediately locate much of Byrne’s creative DNA in the mix. His tricky, fantastically strange ethos seems to have been so bent to the conventions of musical theater that its idiosyncrasies have been ironed out almost entirely in favor of roof-scraping hooks and easy, straightforward rhyme schemes.
Lampert is necessarily required to carry those numbers (and by extension, the show) on her glittering, chain-mailed shoulders, a thing she does with admirable fervor — even when her voice is more powerful than precise, and her Joan less a living breathing girl than a symbol; a human semaphore for faith, sacrifice, and female empowerment. The otherwise all-male cast (save one final-scene cameo) are left to fill a multitude of supporting roles, rushing from their standard Greek-chorus looks — a sort of Mad-Max-meets-Topshop urban chic put together by costume designer Clint Ramos, heavy on distressed denim and combat boots — to the more traditional robes of the King’s court and the Catholic Church, playing occasional sympathizers but mostly antagonists to Joan’s fierce, God-driven misfit.
It’s all impressively brisk (at an intermissionless 95 minutes) and smartly executed, though it’s also never quite clear in the end why this version of Joan is especially crucial, after literally hundreds of interpretations on stage and screen. It’s telling, maybe, that the moments in Fire that shine brightest aren’t the words put in her mouth by this particular production but the ones that the show takes care to specify came from the real court transcripts of her trial: They’re a bracing reminder of why she remains such an endless and often elusive subject of fascination, more than half a millennium on.