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In the Green

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 27, 2019

Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Hannah Whitney, Grace McLean, and Rachael Duddy
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Grace McLean's In the Green, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater, is a strange and compelling musical retelling of the even more strange and compelling story of the twelfth century German Catholic Hildegard von Bingen, who spent 30 years living a cloistered life before she left and ultimately became a Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, and mystic.

The show's creator is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Marya, Natasha's strong-willed guardian in Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. But she does have many other acting credits to her name (she recently was the Queen of Hearts in Alice By Heart), and she also performs regularly with her band, Grace McLean & Them Apples. Still, if the 90-minute In the Green is her first full length theatrical work, it makes for an auspicious beginning along a new career path.

Abstract, though not so much that you can't follow the plot, In the Green is a fascinating work. It is filled with music that ranges from Gregorian chant to every manner of voice sounds, ranging from tonal song to atonal dissonance, explosive bursts of breath, ululation and yodeling, some of which is digitally captured and replayed like distant echoes. All of this is unexpectedly beautiful (and beautifully performed), even in its unfamiliarity, and it is accompanied by a quartet of talented musicians on keyboard, bass, drums, cello, and qanun, an instrument that resembles an autoharp, at least in appearance.

As for the plot, only the barebones outline is taken from Hildegard von Bingen's real life story, but even that much biography is something we would most likely find to be rather out of the ordinary. When Hildegard was only eight years old, her parents brought her to be raised in a nunnery that was attached to a monastery. There she was left in the care of Jutta von Sponheim, who lived a totally cloistered life of prayer and meditation. They were locked away together for three decades. That is the basis for In the Green.

It's an unusual tale, indeed, at least as it is presented. Three women (Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, and Hannah Whitney) simultaneously play Hildegard. One carries a large eye. One holds a pair of lips. One has an oversized hand. It's altogether mythic and Jungian in its depiction of a young girl and, later, of a woman who thinks of herself as damaged and broken. Her mentor Jutta, played by Ms. McLean, has her own brokenness to contend with, and she sees hard work and prayer as the only road to redemption. Most of the physical labor has to do with perpetually digging into the dirt floor of their cell. The great set design by Kristen Robinson and costumes by Oana Botez contributed tremendously to the overall effect.

There are many surprises along the way, and it is amazing how much can take place in such an enclosed space. For a new and experimental work like this, there are really only a couple of bumps along the way. There is some deliberately anachronistic humor tossed in, mostly pertaining to the monk who is in charge of the keys, and there is an oddly satiric coda dealing with Hildegard's life after she has finally left the cell. The message seems to be that, in the twelfth century at least, women are more empowered and better off when among members of their own sex; they only become corrupted when they are part of the general society. It's an intriguing notion, but that coda lends a discordant note to the story. In the Green works best when the players are confined to their cell. And musically, this is a score I hope will be recorded so that I can listen to it over again.

In the Green
Through August 4
Lincoln Center Theater Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge