There’s going to be a really long blackout, Heather Christian warns us, sometime during her show. If you’re afraid of the dark, find an usher — they have flashlights. She’s right to alert us: That long, late-breaking episode of darkness is one of the most affecting parts of Animal Wisdom, a sweet, quirky musical meditation on death, now playing at the Bushwick Starr.
Christian, a composer and singer, performs with her band Heather Christian & the Arbornauts, and frequently collaborates with theater ensembles like Witness Relocation and the TEAM. Animal Wisdom (directed by Mark Rosenblatt), conversely, is a theater piece purely of her own devising: a “requiem mass” in which Christian communes with her beloved dead and recalls her Natchez, Mississippi, childhood. In between raucous musical numbers, she tells us about her grandmother and great-grandmother, both clairvoyants, and about her childhood phantasms: a dreaded poltergeist, a beloved (invisible) playmate. She tells of the crumbling Natchez bluffs, whose erosion was causing houses to sink into the Mississippi River — the result, it turned out, of giant catfish burrowing into the riverbanks and creating holes the size of school buses.
Christian relates these tales perched at a piano center stage, surrounded by Persian rugs, altars crammed with family memorabilia, and her excellent band: Sasha Brown (guitar), Fred Epstein (bass), Eric Farber (drums), and Maya Sharpe (violin). The music is sweet and strong, combining the jangles of folk, blues, and gospel with the strains of a Catholic mass. There are joyous hosannas, and a strange, curdled rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Though she advertises Animal Wisdom as a requiem-slash-séance, a quest to summon and exorcise long-lost relations, Christian is just as clearly after buried parts of herself. She eulogizes her eccentric piano teacher, as well as her godfather, a whip-smart CIA code breaker who lived out his last, lonely days, confused and forgotten, in a New Orleans nursing home. Her past identities shimmer in these fables of a vanished childhood.
Animal Wisdom occasionally founders on autobiographical obviousness and ghost-story cliché. Andrew Schneider’s lighting design crowds the room with exposed bulbs, glowing and flickering; the look screams séance, but it doesn’t reveal anything unexpected about memories or ghosts. (Those giant catfish, leaving gapes so big that houses collapse, make a much more intriguing metaphor for harrowing absence.) Christian sometimes overexplains, and an eventual attempt to include the audience comes off as not quite fully considered. In a recent BOMB magazine interview, the performer Adrienne Truscott astutely captured a truth about onstage memoir — “Autobiographical material has to be generous beyond the traditional parameters of autobiography,” she noted, “or I won’t use it” — and though Animal Wisdom often gestures in that direction, it doesn’t always get there.
But then there’s that blackout: deep, extended, and indulgent in the best way. In the darkness, a choir of additional singers floods onstage and belts out a dies irae, a hymn for the dead. The room is crowded with bodies we can sense and hear, but can barely see — as good an image as any for what it would be like to be in the presence of a very lively ghost.