Carla Duren (center) in ‘Oratorio for Living Things.’ (Photo: Ben Arons)
by Billy McEntee
While Heather Christian fans have waited to experience her latest piece for what seems like an eternity, the scope of her newest work actually spans millennia and eons.
Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things was slated to debut at Ars Nova right before the pandemic shuttered live theater; two years later, the symphonic work has finally premiered there and is musicalizing — in a period where the past several months all blur and feel like a wash — how we measure time.
Now playing at Greenwich House through April 17, Oratorio’s artwork features Christian garbed in a black tunic with a frilly collar (the production’s costumes, by Marion Talan de la Rosa, also feature unique collar styles on tunics and blazers in a blue color palette). Out of Christian’s collar springs her head with a stare like Mona Lisa, but despite this look, plaintive and piercing as Christian’s previous works (including her practical breviary “Prime” and haunting elegy “Animal Wisdom”), the artist does not actually perform in this piece. Still, listeners will undoubtedly recognize her spirit and majestic musicality all over her 90-minute alleluia.
Part of the charm of Christian’s previous works has been how she speaks directly to her audience, guiding them, quite literally, through the dark. “Prime” was a musical episode from Playwrights Horizons’ podcast series Soundstage; I listened to it with eyes closed and discovered my own riff on the Daily Examen, an Ignatian practice that invites reflection and prayer on a day’s activity. In Animal Wisdom, a spellbinding blackout was a coup de théâtre during which a choir appeared out of nowhere, bringing that The Bushwick Starr production to a resounding conclusion.
Christian was our north star in each piece, providing focus and a narrative through-line. Oratorio is unique in that it is like a mass—glorious and contemplative—but there is no single preacher. Instead, the ensemble of twelve performers, singing in Latin and English, offers an ode to time and how we measure it in the minutes spent wishing we had dressed warmer or the memories, faulty but evocative, that anchor events and histories.
It is a sprawling topic, and Christian’s rich score provides all the wild and loving notes to give it its due. And while this mass reminded me of the inextricable ties between a church service and theater, I am not sure this particular piece needed theatricalizing: I would have preferred just to listen to it.
In Lee Sunday Evan’s production, the theater is in the round, and community is at the center. The twelve singers flit about, standing on risers and, down below, beneath a floating orb that must symbolize the sun, whose existence we use to quantify hours and centuries. And while the cast aims to connect with the audience, making eye contact and engaging us in a single gesture that is directly participatory toward the end, I feel I would have had as connected an experience simply listening to this piece at home, freed from the distraction of bodies moving from place to place to little effect, and with my eyes closed, finding some clarity in the dark.
Oratorio for Living Things
Ars Nova, presented at Greenwich House
27 Barrow Street, New York, New York
Through April 17
Billy McEntee is a Brooklyn-based freelance arts critic. He’s written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, and Observer.