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Review: A Requiem Mass With a Southern Twang in ‘Animal Wisdom’


Heather Christian, at the piano, shares mystical songs and stories in “Animal Wisdom” at the Bushwick Starr.

Richard Termine for The New York Times

We who are gathered here tonight in an unconsecrated theater in Brooklyn have been asked to join in a holy invocation, beginning with “Oh, Lord,” as we raise cups filled with – not communion wine – but sacred Coca-Cola. Of course, if our faiths lean in other directions, we are told, we may substitute “Oh, goddess,” “Oh, goodness” or, if we believe in nothing, “O.K.”

This being hipsterfied Brooklyn, land of urban lumberjacks and secular beards, the “O.K.’s” dominate this particular call-and-response. Even agnostics, though, may find themselves almost believing in the spirits, holy and otherwise, who possess “Animal Wisdom,” Heather Christian’s truly one-of-a-kind opus at the Bushwick Starr through Nov. 4.

Ms. Christian, a singer and composer of blazing creative ambition, has set out to create nothing less than a bona fide, full-scale requiem for the dead in all our lives. Filling the roles of barefoot evangelist, séance leader, pianist, vocalist and stand-up memoirist, this willowy reed of a performer lends new credence to the term charismatic Christianity.

Her “Kyrie eleisons” are intoned with a deep Southern twang. Ms. Christian grew up in Natchez, Miss. – descended, she says, from a line of women who talked to ghosts. She grew up conversing with spirits, and today drives a car inhabited by the phantom of her granddaddy, who willed it to her.


Ms. Christian offers reminiscences of a Mississippi childhood.

Richard Termine for The New York Times

“I have come here to let something go,” she announces early in “Animal Wisdom,” which is directed with rolling cadence by Mark Rosenblatt. What follows is part exorcism, part dialogue with her dearly departed; part slide show and part ontological theorizing. (It’s also the second musical chamber piece about ghosts to originate at the Bushwick Starr: the other, Dave Malloy’s less religiously oriented “Ghost Quartet,” is being revived at New York Theater Workshop.)

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