Written by Katie Baker and Janice Kaplan
The banner hung over the stage like one of those rag-tag tricolore flags waved by the defiant masses on the barricades in Les Mis.
It looked tanned, weathered, a standard from another time. But the words scrawled upon it are a battle-cry from the year 2017: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The tony blue-state audience at New York’s Public Theater, here to see the play Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, loved this wink to Elizabeth Warren’s Senate-floor rebellion—speaking of heavily staged public theater—that got her banned from the chambers by GOP men.
“I have a T-shirt with those words on it,” an elderly woman told the usher with glee.
It’s a sentiment that also applies to the heroine of the night, another spit-fire female who refused to bend to the patriarchy of her time: the French farm girl, Joan of Arc.
Saint Joan’s story has enticed many a playwright and now it gets the rock-musical treatment by songwriter David Byrne (lead singer of Talking Heads) and director Alex Timbers (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson—Timbers is a cousin of Daily Beast Editor in Chief John Avlon), who previously collaborated on Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love.
Everything about The Public’s new production, intentional or not, seems like a pointed message to Trump, from the play’s diverse cast to its gender-blurring main character who helps save her nation from the clutches of a brutish foe. Indeed, the song lyrics read like some sort of post-election liberal mantra about #resisting when all seems lost: “Never give up. Never give in”; “This, then is the reason/The reason we must fight”; and the oft-repeated refrain, “Have faith. Be strong/Have faith. Be strong.”
The lead actress, Jo Lampert, is new to The Public and a real find—her voice is rich and warm and the joy in her face lights up the stage. When portraying Joan, there’s always the artistic question of how traditionally “masculine” you make her. The only known drawing of Jeanne d’Arc from her lifetime shows her in long curls and a peasant dress with a sword at her side—though the artist, Clément de Fauquembergue, never saw his “holy maid” in real life.
Later representations usually put her in full body armor and hair that ranges from a chin-skimming pageboy (Ingrid Bergman) to a short crop (Milla Jovovich).
The Public goes one further and gives Joan a Mohawk, goth eye makeup, and lots of leather. “I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl,” Joan sings. She’d prefer not to be defined by your binaries, thanks.
Still, Lampert’s Joan is not a contradictory or complicated heroine. There are no dark corners of the mind, no self-defeating character flaws. She has a religious vision, she believes she is doing God’s will, and she never really wavers—not even when she’s signing a confession to save herself from her persecutors.
Joan may inhabit an androgynous grey area when it comes to gender, but the rest of her world is one of pure good and pure evil: The Brits are brutes and bad to the bone, dressed villainously in red and black, while the French and the Dauphin are on the side of right and light, and she is going to help save them. Forget Elizabeth Warren—we’re in George W. Bush, “God told me to invade Iraq” territory here.
And so Joan heads to court to convince the French prince that “France will be saved” if he blesses her holy war. The cardinals tell her that only a virgin can lead the French army and Joan submits to a purity test—a demand that, bafflingly, does not seem to trouble her.
The soldiers train her in the masculine arts of conflict—lots of arm wrestling and grunting here—and then they go kick some British ass. The battle scenes, and the set design in general, are sumptuous and stunning, culminating in a technicolor stained-glass version of the Reims Cathedral that pulsates in neon and black from the depths of the stage.
Joan is at her best when she’s at war—but when the Dauphin gets crowned king, he becomes cautious, and his advisers stress the need to be practical. He pulls back his funding and gives Joan a pitiful number of men to continue her campaign. “Not all wars need to be won,” he sings. To continue the modern metaphor, the Dauphin is basically the DNC and not capable of getting his shit together for the next showdown with the enemy, even though Joan and her Bernie Bros are wildly waving their arms and predicting doom.
And so it comes to pass that Joan and her brave compatriots are defeated and our heroine is captured by England’s thugs, with their penchant for torture and their toxic masculinity.
They strip Joan down to just a pair of bandages that cover her female parts and force another purity test upon her—this one appropriately portrayed as a traumatizing ordeal. They are obsessed with Joan’s biological sex, and her defiant declaration that “my body is not the question” brings to mind all of our recent reductive fights over bathroom bills and the move to define everyone by their genitalia.
Joan still believes she’s on the winning side, but as she languishes in prison, she’s got a few questions for God about why he would be putting her faith to the test in such a brutal way. These scenes, and the ones that follow with her inquisition by the church, owe a heavy debt to Jesus Christ Superstar, culminating in a campy number by a bawdy priest that calls to mind “King Herod’s Song.”
Then Joan, like Jesus, is betrayed by someone masquerading as a friend and we all know how it ends for both these martyrs. But that’s not where the play itself concludes—there’s a coda to show that Joan was vindicated by history, made a saint by the very men who debased her, and celebrated as the woman who helped her beloved France throw off the yoke of English oppression. I guess that’s a small consolation after she gave everything for a country that appreciated her too late. Hits a little close to home, eh, Dems?
The most frustrating thing about the Joan of Arc story—and maybe Hillary Clinton would agree with me here—is that even for all of the 15th-century glass ceilings shattered and stereotypes defied, she still had to act like a man to make it in a man’s world.
She had to cut off her hair, deny her body, dress in men’s clothing, learn men’s games. Speaking of age-old binaries, Joan was only considered legitimate by her own side because she was a proven virgin. And it wasn’t just the guys who bought into that Madonna/whore myth—Joan embraced it, too.
She was pure, in her mind and in the minds of the men she lead, precisely because she was a-sexual, a-typical, a-female.
The Public’s production is commendable for having created a heroine who decides she’s neither a man nor a woman, and is comfortable in her own skin and everyone else be damned.
I loved that about this Joan—she speaks to our present day. And maybe one day—who knows when, at this point—we’ll get a real-life Joan as our very own commander in chief. Maybe she’ll be a trans Joan. Maybe she’ll be a butch Joan. Maybe she’ll even like to wear long curls and a peasant dress; a Joan who is allowed to be a warrior and a woman—any kind of woman she wants—all at the same time.
So here’s the question: What happens when the top guy in government doesn’t really care about the truth? When he thinks facts can be twisted to serve his own interests?
Henrik Ibsen wondered about that when he wrote Enemy of the People back in 1882. And now that we are living through an administration that promotes “alternate facts,” Ibsen feels like the most timely playwright around.
A new adaptation of his play about truth and politics and the perils of democracy opened Tuesday night at the small third-floor theater of the Barrow Group in New York City. The streamlined production is done in period costume but feels thoroughly modern as it brilliantly shows how a simple truth can become twisted and distorted.
Dr. Thomas Stockman (played by Larry Mitchell) has discovered that the town’s baths are heavily polluted and causing people to get sick. He has seen people with rashes and illnesses and three tests by three independent companies have confirmed that there is a dangerous chemical in the water.
Like any good scientist, Thomas thinks the facts will speak for themselves. He doesn’t see anything to discuss. The baths are dangerous, people could die, they must be closed. What other choice could there be?
His brother Peter, the town’s mayor, sees the facts from a very different perspective.
“Facts are facts,” Thomas mutters, but that doesn’t hold much importance for Peter. The town is in the midst of a recession and baths are the primary source of income. He knows the findings will cause economic hardship to the community—and probably keep him from being re-elected. So he has a better idea. The people don’t have to hear about the toxicology reports at all. He calmly tells Thomas that it would be irresponsible to present his findings (and health of the people be damned).
“All I’m doing is reporting the truth,” the doctor says.
“Well… your truth,” counters the mayor.
“It’s not my truth, it’s the truth,” splutters the doctor.
The truth about the environment can be very inconvenient (as Al Gore has taught us). And it’s a lot easier for a politician to challenge the facts than try to fix the problem. So Peter plays the spin game with great dexterity, convincing the townspeople and even the local (socialist) newspaper editors that the facts might be wrong and that ignoring the findings is in their own best interest.
Thomas is an idealist who wants to do good. He has the rumpled look of an intellectual who understand papers much better than people. Peter (played by actor Mike Giese) is well-groomed with slicked-back hair and a three-piece gray striped suit. He stands very straight and remains composed and even-tempered even as he presents his case for suppressing the truth.
Peter’s earnestness makes him even more masterful at the twisted-facts game than our own president. He can win people over with his rational-sounding arguments rather than just blustering to his true believers. We (and Thomas) watch in amazement as he makes everyone believe that black is white and white is black. (At a town meeting, the audience becomes the townspeople.)
“The majority does not always have right on its side!” Thomas eventually roars. “The majority has the power, but it doesn’t make them right. Look around you! Look at what your majority has done!”
Peter declares Thomas an “enemy of the people,” the same phrase Donald Trump tweeted a couple of weeks ago to describe major news organizations.
Ibsen understood that if speaking truth to power makes you an enemy of the people, maybe it’s not such a bad moniker to acquire.
This fast-moving adaptation by Seth Barrish and K. Lorrel Manning could be called Ibsen lite—same themes, less filler. It loses some of the richness of Ibsen’s language but makes his story more accessible. Ibsen was most concerned with the failings of democracy but his other point is even clearer here: Politicians see facts as the enemy.
In a slightly floundering final scene, when Thomas’s daughter Petra (a lovely Roxanne Wells, in her stage debut) holds a glass of water and says that people are born as pure as the water, her father reminds her that the water is tainted. She suggests that they go somewhere else and build a new and honorable society.
“I wonder what it’ll taste like in America?” she says, staring into the glass of water.
Maybe when they wrote it in 2010, the adapters meant those to be words of hope—that goodness and truth could exist across the ocean. But hearing them now, in 2017, the play ends with a weary snicker.