Theater review by Raven Snook
Saint Hildegard von Bingen was one of the most powerfully gifted figures of the Middle Ages: a 12th-century writer, composer, naturalist, theologian and visionary in an era when most women were simply married and written off. But you don't learn much about her achievements in Grace McLean's In the Green. Instead, this ambitious but unsatisfying chamber musical attempts to tell her origin story, focusing on the three decades, starting in childhood, that she spent entombed in a cell with anchoress Jutta von Sponheim at a Benedictine monastery in Germany.
These two brilliant women found freedom only when locked away from the world—an irony that McLean pounds home with a mace. In its gracelessly blunt lyrics and gimmicky concepts—three actresses (Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan and Hannah Whitney) play Hildegard, holding puppets representing her hands, mouth and eyes to indicate that she's fractured—the show wears its subtext on its long medieval sleeves. But the music is heavenly: a dazzling combination of folk, funk and pop that features live vocal looping and even incorporates some of Hildegard's liturgical music. Gorgeously sung by a five-woman cast that also includes McLean as Jutta and the excellent Mia Pak as the darkest part of Jutta's subconscious, the tunes soar even as the story stays earthbound.
Director Lee Sunday Evans can't liven up the inaction, which basically amounts to Jutta and Hildegard going in literal and figurative circles as they debate such questions as dark versus light, life versus death, broken versus whole. An abrupt and seemingly tacked-on ending briefly shows Hildegard's post-Jutta existence and hints that In the Green could use more time to ripen. Just as Hildegard's potential was apparent to Jutta, however, McLean’s promise shines through this fascinating if flawed experiment.
Claire Tow Theater (Off Broadway). Book, lyrics and music by Grace McLean. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.