Model Mad, Musical


Timbers specializes in offbeat revisionist fantasies about historical figures.Photograph by Pari Dukovic for The New Yorker

Our goal, linking out to stories like this, is not to politicize this platform; it is to showcase creative problem-solving, akin to our fascination with and commitment to entrepreneurial conservation. That is what we mean by model mad. We are wary, and weary of the name of the polarizing figure, but resolutely curious to read about how others are dealing with it. Even with a title like A PROTEST MUSICAL FOR THE TRUMP ERA we know it will deliver on the creative side rather than the political. Thanks to Rebecca Mead for a well-focused message:

Five actors gathered in a room on Lafayette Street, in downtown Manhattan, to start rehearsing a new work for the Public Theatre, “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire.” Written by David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, the show recast the enduring, improbable story of Joan—a teen-age girl in medieval France who experienced divine visions, led an army to defeat an occupying power, and was burned at the stake for heresy—as a rock musical that spoke to the current political moment. It was early January, and, that morning, U.S. intelligence officials had arrived at Trump Tower to brief the President-elect, Donald Trump, on the findings of an investigation into the recent election, in which they had concluded that President Vladimir Putin, of Russia, had acted to insure the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Inauguration Day was looming, and the rehearsal room had a troubled mood that reflected more than the ordinary anxieties of creating a show.

The actors arranged four tables into a rectangle and sat down with Alex Timbers, the director of “Joan of Arc.” Timbers, who is thirty-eight, is tall and fine-featured. He wore a denim shirt and black jeans that hung off his lanky, slightly hunched frame. His hair is dark and thick, and he frequently runs a hand through it, like a Romantic poet on deadline.

Despite the air of disquiet, Timbers, who talks like a cool high-school teacher—lots of vocal fry, the repeated use of “awesome”—addressed the cast with rousing enthusiasm. He explained that, though the show had been in development for two years, it remained a work in progress. “I don’t think anything is sacred—we are going to be building this together,” Timbers said to the actors, all of whom were men except for Jo Lampert, a thirty-one-year-old newcomer, who was to play Joan.

Timbers presented a scale model of the stage design, which had been conceived by Chris Barreca. When built, the set would be black and austere, and filled with enormous L.E.D. screens. A staircase extended from wing to wing, and at center stage there was a vertiginous platform. The set was on a turntable, and as it revolved it represented everything from a cathedral to a prison tower. A six-piece rock band was to be installed, in cutout platforms, on the stairs. The music demonstrated Byrne’s facility in different genres, and included elements of pop, jazz, and reggae, though Timbers likened its predominant mood to the numinous Nordic rock of the band Sigur Rós.

Timbers planned to use few props onstage, but, in a corner of the rehearsal room, a cabinet contained items that could have been borrowed from the set of “Game of Thrones”: swords, goblets, a crown. Timbers invited the cast to play with the props as they attempted to straddle the fifteenth and the twenty-first centuries. “One of the keys to any successful musical is everyone telling the same story,” he said. “We are creating our own little world here, and while we are doing that we want to be sure that the things that excite us about it are the same things.”

To give the actors a sense of what excited him about the musical, Timbers turned to a text published in 1896: the preface of Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” a fictionalized retelling of her life. Timbers read aloud:

When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty became a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was.

Lampert, who wears her dark hair in a spiky mullet, and has the long face and androgynous features of a Byzantine icon, stared ahead intently, her eyes brimming with tears. “Damn,” she whispered.

Timbers set the pages aside. “This is a show about faith and self-belief,” he said. “I think that, with the horrors of the context of today, and of 1425, it is really relevant.” He added, “Even the most unlikely individual can change the course of history through will and self-belief, and can make the impossible possible.”

A prolific director, Timbers has since his early twenties specialized in offbeat revisionist fantasies about historical figures. To make the past come alive, he presents it as a modern spectacle, with inventive use of light and video. The first significant work that he directed in New York, in 2003, was “President Harding Is a Rock Star.” Written by Kyle Jarrow, it focussed on Harding’s reputation as a corrupt adulterer, and promoted the theory that Harding died from eating poisoned crab procured by his spurned wife. The show concluded with a danse macabre between Harding and a giant crustacean…

Read the whole story here.

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