Opening during Women's History Month, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire should have been the mainstream feminist rock musical we need now. Unfortunately, what’s onstage at the Public Theater so painfully fails the Bechdel Test, it lacks even one female point of view.
As Joan (Jo Lampert, a siren who should be on your radar in the future) takes us through her controversial travails — from peasant to soldier, from crowning a king to burning at the stake — she offers shockingly little perspective on any of it. Oh, we know she thinks she’s obeying God. But when it comes to how she actually feels, and the ensuing contradictions that might ring true for today’s viewer, the fact that this is a woman’s story is nothing but a smokescreen.
There is one other female character; she appears just once in what can only be described (without irony) as a hail mary. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of male perspectives. The most contemplative solo is “My Life and This Girl,” where Bishop Cauchon (a standout Sean Allan Krill) outlines the conflict between his duties to the church, to his prisoner, to himself and to the people of France. That’s the kind of meaty soul-searching we could stand to see from the girl who is so convinced of her heaven-sent destiny that she gives up her own flesh. Not just on the pyre, but also (twice) to overwrought “purity tests” performed by various men in doubt of her maidenhood.
Yes, you’re reading that correctly: Twice, Examiners are sent to inspect if Joan is “a boy, a girl, a virgin or a whore.” Not even for the audience’s sake is there a nod to the fact that people can be more than male or female, more than a virgin or whore, both a whore and worthy, or — perhaps the greatest miracle of all — both a woman who has ridden across France on horseback and one with a fully intact hymen.
Spoiler alert: Though Joan passes these exams, they still don’t exonerate her! We do, however, learn that although Joan has “beautiful breasts,” the men don’t rape her. Then they marvel at their own restraint and credit her noble spirit.
Though this Joan is little more than God’s Barbie (GI Joan?), even His voice is shockingly absent. It’s difficult to fit the subtext of religion into supertext. The show is kept to a fleet 90 minutes, which still manages to drag as the characters sing just exactly what’s on their minds (“I am not the same girl, I am forever changed”). The layering of literal supertext over direct exposition is an interesting choice for the story of a young girl known for following the voices in her head. But again: This isn’t about Joan; this is about letting a 99 percent male cast and creative team tell you about Joan. It’s a cool war story, starring this girl who’s a little strange but really hot.
There are a few pluses. Though it can’t always commit to its rock-concert pastiche, the staging has many breathtaking tableaus with visionary director Alex Timbers’ signature dashed straight across the most striking moments. Save a few distracting handhelds, the lighting is gorgeous. The score (performed by musicians onstage) is encouraging, when the simplistic lyrics aren’t getting in its way. The “hands-down” best number is the torture song, and if the whole play lived up to it, from tune to tone, there’s little doubt this musical would be a hit on Broadway by 2018.
But it doesn’t. “Joan of Arc” is caught in a purgatory of its own devices, and unless it heeds the voice of a heroine who is ultimately capable of speaking her mind, it’s likely to go down in flames.