Heather Christian labels her new theater piece, Animal Wisdom, a "Requiem Mass," which she defines for the audience as "a Catholic church service done for the specific purpose of putting a newly departed soul in repose." But instead of the solemnity of the requiems of Mozart and Brahms, or even the operatic high drama of Verdi's Requiem, Christian's own mass mixes precious spiritualist whimsy with gospel-like fervor in ways that feel at best like a genuine communing with the ghosts of the creator's own past, and at worst like an overextended therapy session with Southern Gothic overtones.
Such gestures toward magical realism are made prominent in the first hour of this almost two-hour show, with Christian saying that she's been talking to the dead since she was a child growing up in Natchez, Mississippi. She speaks at length about two of her ancestors, Ella and her grandmother Heloise — two musicians who suffered from migraines throughout their lives and both of whom were also able to commune with ghosts in their own ways. Mixed in with these personal reminiscences about those and other important figures in her life are philosophical reflections on the nature of humanity and the soul, all of which, depending on your religious leanings, will strike you as either profound or hippy-dippy. Christian doesn't really try to make her brand of mysticism accessible to the audience, instead simply plunging into it from the outset and demanding that we follow her through the byways of her own mind.
Such full-throated commitment to her peculiar worldview is admirable, but it can also push away those in the audience who have trouble getting onto her wavelength. Thus, parts of Animal Wisdom may make some members feel like they're on the outside looking in, bearing witness to a messy personal exorcism, one that clearly means a great deal to Christian herself but less so to the rest of us. Even at its most piercingly affecting — most memorably, when Christian reminisces about the death of her grandmother, and the sense of intimacy encouraged by set designers Eric Farber and Andrew Schneider's homespun circular setup at the Bushwick Starr becomes truly breathtaking — there's a sense of detachment that prevents us from being able to fully share in the grief she's clearly processing in front of us.
This makes Christian's most daring gambit in Animal Wisdom — an extended sequence that takes place in pitch black, with only her impassioned music performed by Christian and her band the Arbornauts to accompany us — something of a relief. Here, at last, is that sense of universality that had previously eluded us. With the darkness serving as a kind of equalizing force, Christian's grief becomes our own. As we find ourselves caught up in her ardor, the music becomes ever more feverish in its intensity. As is the case with death itself, darkness is the great human equalizer in Animal Wisdom.
Also universal in Animal Wisdom is Christian's own considerable gifts as a composer and performer. Even when her lyrics are sometimes too obscure and self-consciously poetic, her voice, often recalling a more mature version of Joanna Newsom, is rich enough to command attention throughout. Her band members provide able support as Christian occasionally interacts with them in playful ways that suggest a long-established symbiotic kinship. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is Andrew Schneider's lighting, which fluidly goes back and forth between full-glare omniscience and colorful spotlighting that seems fully keyed into Christian's own wide-ranging psychological states. And toward the end, after that lengthy period of darkness, small dots of light gradually pop up in the space, the effect feeling like lights at the end of a tunnel. Animal Wisdom may not necessarily live up to its title in offering an eye-opening perspective on dealing with an awareness of death, but cumulatively, Christian's work accomplishes what all great requiem masses ought to do: It leaves us in a state of hushed reflection.
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