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Off Broadway Review: David Byrne’s ‘Joan of Arc: Into the Fire’

Variety logo Variety 3/16/2017 Marilyn Stasio
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Jo Lampert is so conspicuously exotic, with her pale, elongated face and icicle-thin body, that it’s entertaining just to watch her wave her flag and model her sexy armor. The performer’s compelling stage presence and powerful alto help her survive “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” a flashy display of eye-catching stage tricks from director Alex Timbers. In the follow-up to his hit Imelda Marcos tale “Here Lies Love,” David Byrne contributed the book, music and lyrics for this lugubrious treatment of the 15th-century virgin saint who saved France — and, for her troubles, was burnt alive at the stake as a heretic. 

The plotline follows the broad outlines of Joan’s life: the voices in the garden, the quest to see the Dauphin, the successful Siege of Orleans, the failure to take Paris, the religious showdown with the bishops. All very exciting, until it ends in her imprisonment and death.

The basic concept of this concept musical, premiering at the Public Theater, is that Joan was less inspired by the heavenly saints who launched her mission to defeat the English invaders and unify France than she was stirred by the warrior within.  To this end, Timbers (who also directed “Here Lies Love”) has staged each of the main events in Byrne’s script as an epic battle. Ten exceptionally hunky male actors constitute both the English and the French armies, identifiable by the snazzy battle dress designed by Clint Ramos.  (Hint: the French wear fleurs-de-lis on a field of blue, and the English fight under a blood-red cross.)  In one scene (with choreography by Steven Hoggett), the actors fight themselves by wearing both sets of armor at once.

But Joan outshines them all with her gorgeous suit of body-hugging armor, assembled one dazzling piece at a time as she wins battle after battle. Despite undergoing multiple rough checks confirming her virginity, Joan declares: “I’m not a girl, I’m not a boy,” and Lampert’s slender androgynous form bears her out. As an alto, she also avoids the gender giveaway of those soprano head notes.

The staging is all very theatrical. Timbers gets a lot of mileage out of scenic designer Christopher Barreca’s basic set piece of steep stairs, and lighting designer Justin Townsend makes all the black surfaces look like velvet. One dramatic setting consists of full-length mirrors, artfully placed to reflect a high-backed tufted leather throne. And every battle scene appears to be fought with colorful flags, rather than swords.

But all this stagecraft is ultimately undone by the limitations of the score. Every song seems to spring from the same martial air, and the lyrics wouldn’t tax the intelligence of an eight-year-old. Better to think of this as a fashion show of the prettiest armor you ever saw.

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