Jo Lampert and Michael James Shaw in Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. Photograph: Joan Marcus
Written by: Alexis Soloski
Theatergoers shouldn’t martyr themselves for a ticket to Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, at the Public Theater. Though written by the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and directed by Alex Timbers, who collaborated on the marvelous 2013 musical Here Lies Love, this rock concert retelling of the brief life and charred death of the virgin warrior sounds oddly indistinct.
The broad outlines of Joan’s story are familiar. A French peasant born during the hundred years war, she received messages from angels, who encouraged her to liberate France. Presenting herself to a nearby garrison, she convinced its soldiers to bring her to court and to introduce her to the dauphin. She helped to liberate a swath of French towns before being captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. All of these events are comprehensibly presented during the sung-through musical, but there’s an absence of psychological acuity and Joan (Jo Lampert) never entirely emerges as a definite human character.
A banner greeting the audience on entry makes explicit the parallels between Joan’s time and our own with a banner recalling Senator Mitch McConnell’s condemnation of Senator Elizabeth Warren, a put-down recalibrated as a battle cry: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The banner falls and hunky men in jeans and henleys crowd the stage, singing a ballad that asks what any one person can do. Joan appears in silhouette with a musical answer: “Have faith, be strong.” She approaches the men and asks: “Let me be your Joan of Arc / Let me be your sacred heart.” She trades her contemporary outfit for peasant clothes, then doffs those for battle dress and a punky haircut. She is the rare woman who can really pull off chain mail.
More songs follow, tracing Joan’s valor and victories on a turntable set dominated by a black ziggurat. Occasionally, it opens to reveal band members tucked away inside, like the medieval ascetics who were walled into churches. The set keeps moving and so do the colored lights and so do the dances (the choreography is by Steven Hoggett, using typically pedestrian movements). The pacing is brisk, the cast melodious, the orchestrations clever. It’s an agreeable evening, but shouldn’t it be braver, wilder, more mystical?
In Here Lies Love, a musical about Imelda Marcos, the music was mostly disco, a genre she loved. The beats and the dance party atmosphere made the audience uncomfortably complicit in the tale of dictatorship. One hoped for a similarly sly joining of form and structure and content, but that’s not really the case here.
Most of the Joan of Arc songs use a familiar rock ballad vocabulary and tend to blur together. There’s a moment when the vaunting English sing in the bro-ish tones of anthem rock, but then the French sing the same way when the tide of battle turns. The last third of the show, detailing Joan’s imprisonment, execution, and eventual canonization, has a more varied and particular sound, but this comes so late.
Surely as a woman defiantly out of step with her day – pluckier, holier, more resolute – Joan should have a separate musical vocabulary. Lampert, a slender and androgynous creature with piercing eyes and spiky hair, has a strong and flexible voice – rough or silvery, depending on the song, but she harmonizes with the men around her just fine. She is anyone who has ever stood up against oppression, but she is never quite herself. This is a Maid of Orleans who is not quite made-to-order.