by JK Clarke
It’s difficult to fathom, in the current sociopolitical atmosphere, why the renowned and supremely talented David Byrne, at the behest of The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, would choose to tell the story of an historical figure who is the very symbol of France’s ultra-nationalist, bigoted, National Front party (founded by white supremacist and regular presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen). That there is no mention of this ethical conflict in the program notes of Joan of Arc: Into the Fire—playing through April 30 at the The Public’s Newman Theater—is, at a minimum, disturbing. But it turns out it may be the least of the production’s shortcomings.
Nowhere in the program notes does Eustis say why he thought the life of the Maid of Orleans would be a good subject for Byrne to tackle as the followup to his unexpectedly intriguing rock musical bio of former Philippine First Lady (and notorious shoe collector) Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love (which made its off Broadway premiere at The Public in 2013). Aside from mentioning it was prompted by a friend, Eustis doesn’t clarify why wanted to tell the story of a mentally ill adolescent who approached the French army, with stories of angels who had instructed her to lead them to victory. The poor teen from the country, Joan of Arc, was made a mascot and ultimately mythologized by the French army who embraced her religious hallucinations, either through superstition or as a distraction. She may well have inspired the troops, but the likelihood that she “led” them is minimal. Nonetheless, she lives on in as a legend and saint in French and Roman Catholic lore.
In Into the Fire Byrne tells the well-known story in song of d’Arc’s rise from impoverished farm girl to “leader” of the army, turning the tides of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and leading them to very nearly re-taking Paris before she is captured, tried and burnt at the stake by the English army she had beguiled. The entire story smacks of a medieval witch hunt, yet she remains celebrated as an actual warrior and, more importantly, the embodiment of Catholic Faith and French Royalty.
The details of Joan’s story, as Byrne tells them, vacillate between completely banal and shockingly perverse. An ongoing obsession with Joan’s purity becomes an odd, uncomfortable moment of focus (and song) . . . twice. In Byrne’s version she is painfully examined by men—either clerics or soldiers—who want to be certain she is still a virgin, the circumstances of which feel creepily sexualized. In the historical record it was, in fact, women (ladies of the court and even the Queen of Sicily), who examined Joan for evidence of her chastity, which is far less disturbing; so why Byrne insists on making these events quasi-rapes (at one point a gynecologist’s speculum is menacingly, and anachronistically, dangled in front of her face) is puzzling.
Each step in Joan’s fantastic journey is detailed in song with plain, dry lyrics serving as dialog. A typical example, “Are you a boy? Are you a girl?” is sung by soldiers when she first approaches, asking to join their ranks. While Byrne’s music is of the top level caliber he’s been known for over the last 40 years, his lyrics—in an already dry story—sap the melodies of their energy. It’s a shame, too, because Jo Lampert, as Joan, is a remarkable, full-throated singer with a gorgeous voice, belting out the banal numbers with gusto. Lampert may not yet be as fully skilled as her fellow actors, unnecessarily overacting in dramatic moments—and strangely she is styled in later scenes to resemble more Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver) than an adolescent soon-to-be-saint—but she attacks her role head-on and hearing her sing even these poorly written song is a treat. The entire cast, in fact, is terrific (Rodrick Covington was particularly terrific and funny as the Head Priest), doing the best they can with material. One can only imagine they went into the production believing in Byrne’s abilities and nearly spotless track record and were surprised well into the process.
Almost every other aspect of Joan of the Arc: Into the Fire is beyond impressive. Clint Ramos’s costumes are simply breathtaking, from the lush, colorful robes of the clergy to the two-sided soldiers’ uniforms that allowed a small group of actors to play two armies battling each other. Their fronts emblazoned with the English flag and their backs sporting a full-bodied Fleur de Lys, through pivots they fight armies of themselves (the clever dance of war choreographed by Steven Hoggett). And Christopher Barreca’s versatile block set of modular steps that opened into passageways and musician dugouts coupled gorgeously with Justin Townsend’s rock club lighting made for a dazzling spectacle, with only an occasional misstep (such as Joan battling soldiers with a beam of light, as if she’d just teleported in from Star Wars).
Director Alex Timbers, along with Music Director Kris Kukul do miraculous things with Byrne’s story (thanks, in no small part, to the strength of Byrne’s actual music). But they are working with thin material and no amount of excellence is enough to sustain the dry, one-dimensional and often trite “dialogue” Byrne has offered up. Where he once seemed infallible, Byrne has become the latest figure to suffer defeat at the hands of St. Joan, who just doesn’t rise from the ashes like she used to.
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. Through April 30 at The Public Theater’s Newman Theater (425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus