Review: Oratorio for Living Things and the Joys of the Unknown by Heather Christian

Largely because of the polemics of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, we’ve come to think of science and religion as diametrically opposed – but this separation is anomalous when viewed in context. Of the history. Atheism was not adopted by the likes of Galileo or Newton, nor a label that Einstein applied to himself in the godless 20th century, describing his own religiosity in The world as I see it as an appreciation of the wonders of existence “which are accessible to our reason only in the most elementary forms”.

It is with this same respect for the vast unknown that composer Heather Christian wrote it Oratorio for Living Beings, world premiere with Ars Nova at Greenwich House. This collision of classical music, experimental theater and theoretical physics generates so much creative energy that it looks like it could power every theater in New York.

An oratorio is a musical work for orchestra and choir that tells a story and usually follows a religious theme (Handel’s Messiah is the most famous example). It’s not the first time that Christian has offered his own version of a sacred form: a large part of his show animal wisdom was a requiem mass, hitting the required parts while completely breaking traditional notions of what a requiem sounds like. She undertakes to do the same with Oratorio and succeeds spectacularly with a delightful score presented in a most unusual concert hall.

Kristen Robinson designed the set for Heather Christian Oratorio for Living Beings at Greenwich House.
(©Ben Arons)

Greenwich House has been completely transformed to Oratorio for Living Beings, with the audience squeezed into the arena seats in anticipation of what appears to be the smallest and smallest circus (stage design by Kristen Robinson). It seems almost uncomfortably close in a post-Covid world, in which people have become acutely aware of their closeness to other bodies. But our role in this musical drama becomes clearer with the illumination of a popcorn-shaped core at the center of this cozy cell. Performers filter voms and stairs around us, singing in Latin (there are 18 performers in the show, including the musicians located in two areas overlooking the stage).

Latin gives way to English which sings about photosynthesis, carbon, memory and time. Christian mixes these complex technical themes with personal memories, including a delightfully eerie one about a 4-year-old believing a village of tiny people lives on his lap (imaginary friends also played a part in animal wisdom). There are no named roles, and everyone seems to play everything, like atoms recycled endlessly in time. Although no performer stands out, all make personal connections with the material and each member of the audience.

Dito van Reigersberg and Barrie Lobo McLain appear in the world premiere of Heather Christian Oratorio for Living Beingsdirected by Lee Sunday Evans, for Ars Nova at Greenwich House.
(©Ben Arons)

Director Lee Sunday Evans cleverly organizes the cast on a limited stage space, which Jeanette Oi-suk Yew illuminates in a striking way: at one point everyone falls into a shade of dark green and we watch their natural color slowly return . Márion Talán de la Rosa disguises the actors to give the impression that they have all just gotten off the same L train. Musical director Ben Moss achieves an almost homogeneous vocal cohesion in an ever-moving choir, playing in circles. Sound designer Nick Kourtides ensures that we can hear every note, if not every word. And to be fair, I’m not sure any sound engineering can achieve the latter.

I generally place a high value on intelligibility of lyrics in musical theatre. If you can’t clearly convey what you’re trying to say to the audience, you’re failing in form. This attitude does not bode well for Oratorio, a spectacle in which overlapping lyrics arise and submerge again, like a salmon swimming upstream. Even the lines I thought I had caught often managed to escape me: it took me an embarrassing time to realize that “two gays looking for a bathroom” (the story of my life) was really ‘eighteen days looking for a bathroom” (still no idea where I heard the “two”).

Onyie Nwachukwu, Quentin Oliver Lee, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Sean Donovan and Brian Flores appear in Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Beingsdirected by Lee Sunday Evans, for Ars Nova at Greenwich House.
(©Ben Arons)

It’s in a song called “Iteration 4: Building DNA via Ticket Tape of Time Spent”, which has lyrics like “One year in the bag drop line” and “Eleven days trying to remember why you walked into the play” – and I know this because every member of the public receives a copy of the booklet in a low-tech version of what the Metropolitan Opera does with subtitles on the back of every seat in the house. I would recommend reading it after the performance, as you’ll want to devote your full attention to this strange and dynamic theatrical experience.

One could interpret the obscurity of the lyrics not as a flaw, but as an authentic representation of existence: not everything is knowable, and you probably won’t understand the vast majority of what’s going on in the world – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lean forward and try. In his sneaky way, Oratorio for Living Beings is a call to the public not to give up and trust sciencebut to continue exploring the mysteries of the universe.