Heather Christian Unleashes a Ravishing Tour de Force in The Bushwick Starr’s “Animal Wisdom”

Heather Christian in her Bushwick Starr show, “Animal Wisdom.” Photo by Maria Baranova.

The richest musical score this season might not be found on Broadway. To add to its allure, it’s created by a “migraine-suffering musician who talks to dead people.”

It’s a bold self-proclamation, but Obie Award winner Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom is an equally bold work — and one that’s near impossible to pin down. To call it a play lumps it in with traditional narratives, and yet to label it a folksy-Requiem-mass-drama barely trumpets its dynamism, élan, and pure resplendence.

Christian has penned a semi-autobiographical new work — now extended through November 18 at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street) — that loosely parallels a Mass for the dead. Elliptically episodic, Animal Wisdom bounces around in time as Christian describes deceased loved ones whose spirits now reside in a childhood piano, a red bird, an old car, and more.

But one doesn’t need a familiarity with Catholic funeral structure or urban spirituality to savor this emotional journey and indelible score. It would be a disservice to compare Christian’s idiosyncratic music to other luminaries as hers navigates its own brand of melodic heft, lyrical elegies, and firecracker spirit.

Photo by Maria Baranova.

Director Mark Rosenblatt avoids the pitfalls of what could be a self-serving one-woman show with the help of an invigorating quartet. Sasha Brown, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, and Maya Sharpe versatilely play small roles and big music to support the action. And though Animal Wisdom centers entirely on Christian’s spiritual life, it is a star turn of the utmost generosity: Christian offers ringing bells to honor the deceased, holy Coca Cola to take as Communion, and welcome darkness to reflect during the climax’s enchanting 15-minute blackout.

With a runtime just under two hours, this finale takes a little too long to arrive (an anecdote or two could have been shortened), but it is riveting when it does. A chorus joins the five performers, and in the engulfing and impressive darkness Christian’s vocals soar and heal. When Andrew Schneider’s lighting returns (rich in practicals and starry wonder), it’s easy to miss the comforting blackness he created moments earlier.

It takes a lot of trust for an artist to literally leave her audience in the dark for that long, but Christian seems to know the time will be well spent. Be spellbound in those minutes.

Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom runs now through November 18 at The Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr Street, off the Jefferson L stop. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at thebushwickstarr.org.

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Indiewire, HowlRound, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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