Jo Lampert soldiers on as the title character in "Joan of Arc: Into the Fire." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Written by Linda Winer
Four years ago, rock icon David Byrne and director Alex Timbers collaborated on “Here Lies Love,” a smashing, immersive disco extravaganza about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, of all unlikely subjects, set in an open space at the Public Theater as if in a Manila dance club.
One thing can be definitively concluded from “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” Byrne’s second musical and second collaboration with Timbers. They can never be accused here of having repeated themselves.
Alas, we also cannot congratulate them for successfully reinventing themselves. “Joan of Arc” is almost shockingly deadly. Unlike “Here Lies Love,” which was co-created by Fatboy Slim, this one has been written and composed by Byrne alone. And unlike the brilliant iconoclast’s previous work with Talking Heads or “The Catherine Wheel,” which Twyla Tharp later choreographed into a full-length Broadway piece in 1981, this is a 90-minute hair shirt of a project with no discernible point of view.
Despite a breakout androgynous star turn by Jo Lampert as Joan, it is hard not to think we are watching a Sunday school musical about religious history with hymns alternating with pop and rumba. The only thing it has in common with “Here Lies Love” is the use of some authentic material. For Imelda, it was historical texts and oral history. For Joan, it is a transcription from her trial.
Things do perk up at the trial, but not before we watch the farm girl convince the French soldiers and the young Dauphin (Kyle Selig, with the charm of a boy-band idol) that she comes from God to help them beat the British from their lands. After they prove that she’s a virgin — the first of two such warrior examinations — she is transformed into a soldier with hair shaved on the sides and leather pants under her silver cloth armor.
“I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl,” she sings, with a clear, steely, soulful voice. “The kingdom of heaven rules the world.” Nor are these the most banal of the lyrics, which include “What would our Savior do / is there hope for me and you,” and “Now it is all up to me / we must fight to be free.”
You know the story, though the show begins with explication and includes projections of years and battles. Christopher Barreca’s proscenium sets include dark stairs and some cubbyholes for the band. Clint Ramos’ costumes begin with men in street clothes — get it? War is forever — and flip to the 15th century, with lots of French fleurs-de-lis and British crosses. Special effects are ’50s Flash Gordon medieval. David Byrne is nowhere to be found.