Each generation of American youth has something critical to say about their predecessors. They examine their parents’ mores and society and are dissatisfied. They inevitably revive the iconoclast struggles between generations that include perennial efforts to reconcile science and religion. It’s perhaps natural to occur now as we reenter the world from the lament of the pandemic. I sensed this reemergence while recently attending Science at the Theater of the New City.
In theater, beginning in the late 60s, the Age of Aquarius brought rebellious youth to the stage excoriating the military draft and the Vietnam War tragedy while questioning their parents’ versions of Christianity and patriotism. It was an exultation of counterculture, the sexual revolution, and hippie-dressed youthful, rebellious emergence that continued into the next decade. Musicals like Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar fit the bill for brash, youthful artistic expression. Luminaries like John Lennon and George Harrison ventured into Swami Prabhupada’s tenets of Hare Krishna and begat songs like My Sweet Lord, All Things Must Pass, and Living in the Material World.
Today, the young can craft an argument and find a voice through Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things, an intense, transcendental experience that exudes reverence, spirituality, and reflection. It examines the most profound of universal forces, time, and explores it, as Christian explains, “on three scales: the quantum, the human, the cosmic.”
The Oratorio begins with an incipient, gentle admixture of plainsong and theater surrounding the sun. It gradually takes participants from their sub specie aeternitatis into a joyous musical enterprise of operatic, dynamic, and impassioned theatrical afflatus. This progression is accomplished through a marvelous ensemble, solo, accompanied, and a capella choric rapture. Text is sung in Latin and English for both placid and turbulent evocation. The music is fresh, passionate, celestial, and cleverly spans jazz, blues, gospel, classical, contemporary, and ultramontane polyphony. Akin to Wilfred Owens’ passing bells, church bells transpire at critical moments, providing ominous reminders of time and its portentous inevitability.
The theater is an intimate space. The seating is steeply vertical and surrounds a central performance area. World-class musicians performing on percussion, keyboards, reeds, violin, cello, and double bass/electric bass are perched in the wings around the top. Sound and lighting are miraculous, surrounding and cradling the audience and cast alike. The troupe performs in the aisles, on lofty parapets, and in the center stage area below, scattering and regrouping like pinpoints of flame. They are sparkling, coruscating, and evolve their contrapuntal mélange into an ineffable unfolding of meaning beyond sheer solipsism. The packed house stood and extended well-earned ovations for the company.
This musical may indeed move uptown, as did Hair and Godspell of another generation. I look forward to seeing how the profoundly intimate character of the work materializes on a grand scale.
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Runtime: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Ars Nova presents Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Through May 15, 2022
Tickets are here or type https://arsnovanyc.com/oratorio/.
Ars Nova @ Greenwich House
27 Barrow Street, New York, NY, 10014