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Theatre in Review: Oratorio for Living Things (Ars Nova/Greenwich House)

Onyie Nwachukwu, Quentin Oliver Lee, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Sean Donovan, Brian Flores. Photo: Ben Arons

Heather Christian's new music-theatre piece is dedicated to Carl Sagan, Carl Orff, and Carlo Rovelli; a better title might be I Tre Carlos . You may be wondering what the late astronomer, the composer of Carmina Burana, and the theoretical physicist (and founder of loop quantum gravity theory) have to do with each other. I've seen Oratorio for Living Things and I'm still wondering.

According to the libretto -- available at the theatre and a must-read if you have any hope of grasping what Oratorio for Living Things is all about -- it is a contemplation of "time on three scales, the quantum, the human, the cosmic." The first part, which focuses on the origins of life, features "a ballet of Chloroplasts and Mitochondria, also a prayer of thanksgiving to Oxygen, evolution's caffeinator." The second part was created "primarily using verbatim memories...harvested from anonymous voicemails." The final passage deals with "time's essential nature, which is marked and recorded only through collision and violence."

Did I mention that a third of the text is in Latin?

Whatever its intentions, Oratorio for Living Things floods the theatre with music, most of it ravishing, delivered by singers who leap with Olympic ease through the score's complex harmonies and overlapping melodic lines. Some have commented that one can hear echoes of Orff, but such eluded me. Indeed, the music has a strangely timeless quality, blending classical and contemporary ideas into something utterly distinctive. Taken as a concert -- the sort of thing on which, admittedly, I am hardly qualified to comment -- it is, at times, a transporting experience.

Does it matter that it remains permanently poised outside of one's comprehension? Thanks to the extensive use of a dead language and diction generally sacrificed to glorious vocalizing, it is possible to pick up only a few words here and there. Then again, perusing the text does little to aid the cause of clarity. The snatches of text that one can hear indicate Christian's fascination with time in all its manifestations. If, however, you are looking for characters, action, or even a coherent statement about the nature of life, you may be disappointed.

Lee Sunday Evans' production sends the gifted, deeply committed cast strolling through the tiny stadium bowl with which scenic designer Kristen Robinson has transformed the interior of Greenwich House. (The show unfolds in very, very close quarters; if you are still worried about social distancing, this is not the entertainment for you.) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting runs the gamut, bathing the theatre in soft pinks and blues before using worklights to drain all color from the space; she makes other strong color statements, too, and employs a combination of haze and vertical strips to create bursts of smokey white light. With their bias-cut shirts; high-waisted, short-legged pants; full-length coats; and outfits gathered at the midriff, Márion Talán de la Rosa's costumes, look like something pulled from an avant-garde Fashion Week show; as such, they are sometimes oddly unflattering. Nick Kourtides' sound design is present but not overbearing, no small trick with a cast of 18 cast packed into such a small space. Given that a dozen orchestrators are involved, the score sounds remarkably unified.

Highly original, often seductively beautiful, and mystifyingly opaque, Oratorio for Living Things will probably be best enjoyed by an audience of adventurous music lovers. Those willing to let Christian's compositions wash over them will be rewarded. Others may find themselves recalling the advice of Hamlet's mother: More matter, less art. --David Barbour

(31 March 2022)

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