David Byrne’s boisterous segue from Imelda Marcos (Here Lies Love) to Saint Joan (Joan of Arc: Into the Fire) is the ultimate example of crab-walking from the ridiculous to the sublime. It’s also true that in Here Lies Love, his shape-shifting disco dance-a-thon about the imperious Philippine First Lady (co-authored with Fatboy Slim), aimed higher than a comic-book rehash of a life lived in gossip columns might have. It resonated in a timely parable of power, greed and accumulation. Conversely, Into the Fire shoots lightning bolts through the sacred if familiar story of the 15th century farm girl from Lorraine who listened to the voices in her head, led an army to reclaim France for the French and was burned alive for her efforts.
In both shows – Here Lies Love had its premiere at the Public Theater in 2013, and Byrne has returned there with Joan, which opened tonight – an iconic figure is given human configuration. That’s of a piece with Byrne’s work as the alchemist of Talking Heads, who spun gold from the mundane. Joan of Arc is the riskier work – imagine the Big Shrink horrors, not to mention social media abuse, a girl like Joan would face today. It’s darker, edgier and not nearly as much fun.
It’s also spectacular, due chiefly to an electrifying performance in the title role by Jo Lampert, an actress of striking physical and vocal sinew who convinces us, along with the disheartened French troops, that she will not be deterred. Clad in form-fitting armor and mail (the ingenious period-ish costumes are by Clint Ramos), she proves as masterful at rallying her defeated troops as, well, Henry V at Agincourt had done with his band of brothers on St. Crispin’s Day just a few years earlier. “Oh King of Heaven, Hallelujah and amen,” Joan belts out. “We live to serve you and see France whole again.”
Byrne is reunited with director Alex Timbers, who not only turned Here Lies Love into a so fabulous movable feast but also staged the Public production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in this same Newman Theater. They’ve added choreographer Steven Hoggett (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to the mix, and the result is a rousing, if nightmarish, martial dream that pulses with jagged energy on a bleak battlefield set by Christopher Barreca, spectrally lit through smoke and fog by Justin Townsend against a digital backdrop (projections and special effects by Darrel Maloney and Jeremy Chernick) that takes us from battlefield to the Rouen Cathedral.
Once Joan’s fate becomes clear – she will lose for winning, betrayed by the duplicitous Bishop Cauchon (Sean Allan Krill) and the lubricious commander Warwick (Terence Archie) – the nearly sung-through show slows down, as if to heighten, if not to savor, the tortures awaiting her. Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is serious in its contemplation of the mystical, the connection between belief and fate, and so it’s unsettling. It’s also very loud, very moody and as unsparingly bleak as its final, charred image.
Across the lobby of the Public at Joe’s Pub, another new musical is unfolding, and it’s a charmer. The Outer Space is a song-sprinkled monologue with spirited accompaniment about leaving mother Earth behind. A husband and wife take up life in a junker rocket ship, joining a colony of other junker rocket ships populated with folks who wanted to get away from it all, meaning “noise, violence, oppression, the grind, rudeness, tourism, traffic, trash, smelly buses, corporate greed, cultural homogenization, economic marginalization, pollution, overcrowded schools, overpriced rents, overhyped pastries, and busker rock.”
“Many people are born with or acquire a vivid, Technicolor dream of getting away from that,” the narrator says. “And unfortunately, the husband in our story isn’t one of them.” As they circle Mercury, where each spin around the sun takes the equivalent of 59 Earth days, he hangs onto his cherished urban grumpiness while she “blossoms.”
I realize this probably sounds unbearably twee in the telling, right down to the William Accorsi-like rocket ship hanging over the stage (David Zinn did the set and costumes, Ben Stanton the lighting). But in the performance by Ethan Lipton, who wrote the whole thing with Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy and Ian M. Riggs – brilliant instrumentalists who also add vocals – it’s ruefully hilarious and pretty irresistible.
Oddly, The Outer Space reminded me, in its loopy narrative, of a long-ago (very long ago) performance by Frank Zappa of his epic “Billy the Mountain” (and “his stunning wife Ethel, a tree”). My favorite number from The Outer Space is a classic list song in which Lipton enumerates the things that are yoga and are not yoga: Talking to your honey, that’s yoga/talking about money, not yoga/egg whites runny, not yoga/side-up sunny is yoga. Whatever boosts your rocket. “Can two people inhabit a single transition and get where they’re going in one piece?” he wonders. “I hope so.” What’s not to love?