Joan of Arc: Into the Fire

Nothing disappoints quite like high expectations. I've been an Alex Timbers acolyte since I first saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson off-Broadway, and that fandom only grew with Peter and the Starcatcher. After seeing the immersive disco-set musical Here Lies Love, his collaboration with David Byrne, I became a fan of their creative partnership. So when it was announced that the duo was bringing Joan of Arc's story to life on stage, I was pumped. When I left the theatre, I was deflated.

I'll admit that I didn't know much about the titular heroine, now saint; there was, however, a handy timeline in the Playbill. This provided enough context that I was easily able to follow along (though they tried fitting a lot into just 90 minutes). I was able to understand everything, but Byrne and Timbers didn't make me care.

The show starts off well, with Joan's transformation from poor farm girl into impassioned warrior a powerful moment (Jo Lampert is giving a strong performance and has a great voice); it then idles in the middle, and picks up a bit at the end. Overall, there's no urgency in the production or storytelling.  Most disappointingly, though, especially considering Timbers's ingenuity, is that if felt like a safe, staid production. Even in Rocky, Timbers's most traditional work to date, Timbers pushed the boundaries of what can happen in a theatre; he transformed the storied Winter Garden Theatre into Madison Square Garden. It was a brilliant directorial feat.

Here, I couldn't see his touch. There was a nicely staged training montage (good character–appropriate choreography throughout by Steven Hoggett (American Idiot, The Last Ship)), but other than a revolving platform that sometimes looked like a cross, the direction came off as generic, even timid. The climactic burning at the stake, for example, was just humdrum. I'm not an expert pyrotechnic, but I know enough about theatrical tricks and Timbers's usually boundless problem-solving skills to know that the effect could have been ten times more potent and spectacular.

Moreover, there seemed to be uncertainty regarding several of the musical numbers, both in their performance (there was no energy in the room) and in their timing. As the show, which has hints of Jesus Christ Super Star throughout, began, we were more or less trained to expect a sung-through show, that each number would not end but lead into the next scene, leaving no room for applause for individual songs. About four or five songs in, the number ended, and the cast held for applause...and kept holding. After a brief but awkward pause, a tepid applause emerged from the audience, who finally realized that the unremarkable pose and non-instructive lighting cue meant "the song ended; applaud." (Lighting design is by Justin Townsend.)

Then there's also the matter of Joan's faith journey. This young woman set off to fight in the war because she saw a vision from on high. It's difficult to accept that in 2017; it's difficult to see, as Joan's struggle leads her to an antagonistic church, how she could keep the faith. It seems clear to me that the reason the church couldn't accept Joan's visions (BTW, they'd only entertain the notion that she was telling the truth if they could confirm—by digitally examining her most intimate body parts—she was a virgin) because it would pull back the curtain on the church, exposing the fact that they do not have a monopoly on faith; that they do not need to be an intermediary between God and the faithful. So, of course, if anything threatens the primacy of the church, the threat needs to be eliminated.

Perhaps it's not fair to judge Joan by today's standards, but as audience members walked into the theatre, they were greeted by a pre-show curtain emblazoned with today's newly–coined feminist rallying cry, "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." The creative team (including scenic designer Christopher Barreca) are making a point, asking me to connect Joan's journey to today's political fight. So I can't help but look at Joan's actions through my 2017 lens, and be flabbergasted, at best, by her unyielding faith and devotion to the church. 

Some of the better moments or elements: Byrne's score was solid. Each of the featured characters or cohorts had a distinct sound. I particularly liked that the song sung by the British army had a  Brit-rock strut, like The Kinks or the Rolling Stones had written it for their compatriots. The torture scene toward the end, when Joan is imprisoned by the church, was one of the most deliciously subversive satirical moments I had ever seen on stage. And the 11th hour cameo by Mare Winningham (Casa Valentina) as Joan's pleading mother helped the emotional notes resonate. Unfortunately, all that didn't make up for a middling show from expert craftsmen.