Theater review by Raven Snook
Heather Christian's divine Oratorio for Living Things welcomes you to worship. To call this genre-nonconforming show a musical would be reductive: It's a sui generis meditation on time and existence, a classical choral masterwork infused with pop, blues and gospel. A dozen superlative vocalists and six marvelous instrumentalists make sense and aural spectacle out of Christian's compositions. Because the lyrics are dense and can be difficult to parse (some parts are in Latin, sometimes it builds into cacophony), librettos are distributed at the door. You can use them as hymnals to follow along, but engaging fully with Oratorio in all its mysterious glory is a transcendent experience.
Those familiar with Christian's background—she's described her upbringing as "avant-garde Catholicism"—and with her previous shows (I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, Animal Wisdom) know that ritual and religion are threaded throughout her work. Fittingly, director Lee Sunday Evans's simple yet effective staging sometimes evokes a church choir, with the cast swaying and clapping in unison. Aided by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew evocative lighting, scenic designer Kristen Robinson has completely transformed Ars Nova's Greenwich House, placing the audience in tiered seating in the round; the performers pass inches from your face and sing directly to you as they periodically descend to a small central playing space that is dominated by a glowing orb that suggests a nucleus or star.
Christian isn't just examining how humans process time; she's pondering evolution and cosmology, too. (In the program, she thanks theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, astronomer Carl Sagan and Carmina Burana composer Carl Orff for "directly inspiring" the piece.) Lest that sound pretentious, be assured that Oratorio for Living Things is, above all, exhilarating. Even when the meaning is obscure, the breathtaking music, full of complex harmonies and counterpoint, swells with immediate emotion. And when individual lyrics or stories ring through, they are piercing—as in a section about how much time one spends doing both mundane and amazing things throughout one's lifetime. Just as the performers emerge as individuals within a greater whole, the piece makes you feel at once inconsequential and essential, a unique and integral part of the universe.
Oratorio for Living Things was in previews when the shutdown began in March 2020, and after two years when our relationship to time has been thoroughly upended, its themes have only deepened to inspire new inquiries. You could see this production repeatedly and come away with a different valid understanding at each visit. The show’s current run at Ars Nova is sold out, but an extension or transfer seems possible. Let's all pray that it gets more time.
Oratorio for Living Things. Ars Nova (Off Broadway). By Heather Christian. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
[Note: The standby ticket line for cancellations begins outside Ars Nova two hours before curtain time. Tickets, if available, cost $35 and are distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.]
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Oratorio for Living Things | Photograph: Courtesy Ben Arons