Bearing Witness To A Dragon-Slayer In The Body Of A Waif: Heather Christian’s ANIMAL WISDOM

Photo by Maria Baranova

Buy one, ghost gets in free. (It’s usually BOGO – ‘buy one get one,’ a promotion that refers to what is essentially a 2-for-1 purchase, but in Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom, which plays at Bushwick Starr through November 4th [tickets $25], the ghosts are getting in somehow. There are at least six in the show itself, and another hundred plus in the audience, so we are told.)

The show is, in my words, a little under two hours, equal parts concert and séance, and an unforgettable experience. The matter in play is Heather Christian’s lineage – that of a series of southern Catholic women who, as she puts it, “are also musicians who suffer migraines and talk to dead people.” One by one, the show conjures them out of death through story and song. Heather Christian, on piano and vocals, remains in the center of it all throughout, surrounded by her fellow band mates Sasha Brown, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, and Maya Sharpe (who wrote an article about the rehearsal process).

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, or spirits of the dead, or good and bad omens, or God, or the Devil, any of that stuff that exists outside the physical realm, that’s left up to you. What’s important, in the room, in the moment, is that Heather Christian believes. I don’t know if ‘believes’ is the right word. She exists, she conjures, she illuminates through whisper and scream. She calls out to the spirits of her past, and they sing back through her.

A religious radio station appears to be trapped in the sound system. Occasionally a voice can be heard through the PA system, out-of-place, not totally audible. Is this intentional? A reminder that waves of communicative energy are all around us, and who is to say what is what, radio wave versus ectoplasm?

Things that Heather Christian alludes to during the show that function as (not-so) tidy descriptors for the evening:  A requiem mass, a wrecking ball, the light and the dark (in reference to the first two ghosts of Christian’s childhood), a conversation regarding God with regards to human nature and evolution and music and mathematics and physics and quantum mechanics and finally space-time looping back to God and music and so on and so forth, a ritual consumption of Coca-Cola, an evocation, bearing witness to a dragon-slayer in the body of a waif, a campfire circle, a hymn in which past becomes present, a faking it until making it, a loss of chronology, a body and soul topography, a plea for mercy, a scar tattoo, a universal collision, a parlor trick, a silver lining.

And it is. It is all of those things, and more.

It is also a show with an almost-twenty minute period of complete darkness. When the light comes back it feels like being un-drowned. Or drowned in reverse. Or being born? The lighting designer & art director is Andrew Schneider, along with scenic designer Eric Farber, sound designer Stowe Nelson, and costume designer Heather McDevitt Barton. Only Stowe Nelson knows if that radio presence is real or not. Only Andrew Schneider knows exactly how long that black-out is.

At least one piece of marketing refers to Animal Wisdom as a multi-media concert. This is also accurate, in that there are many songs which, when accumulated, become concert-like. The media is old-school. Metronomes. A Kodak slide projector that becomes a percussion instrument. A series of light-up shrines. It feels like being gathered in an attic filled with the artifacts of those who have passed on and left only these items behind. Christian, in the center of the circle, re-animates the environment until it overloads and crashes into darkness.

There is an old-fashioned Coke machine.  At one point, Heather Christian buys a can of Coke. It looked, to me, like it only cost 25 cents. But that’s a capitalist notion, what a thing costs and giving it a numeric code. Cost feels different in Animal Wisdom. It’s impossible to say how much this is costing Christian, to undergo this mass night after night after night. Her ghosts will keep speaking, whether or not she performs this for the room. She will sing whether or not we’re there, because they are there alongside the rest of us, circling the dragon-slayer in the body of a waif, humming with her, communing with her history, her stories, her voice, her electric ability to commune right back at us.

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