Friday, February 23, 2024

"In the Green" by Theatre Elision at Elision Playhouse

For seven years, Theatre Elision has been filling a niche in #TCTheater that we didn't know we needed - small cast, one act, original or rarely done musicals by mostly female creators and artists. In that time they've become one of my favorite theater companies, consistently producing high quality work that you just can't see anywhere else locally. That's definitely the case with the regional premiere of In the Green, less than five years after it premiered Off-Broadway. In a pre-show speech on opening night, resident Music Director Harrison Wade said it's the most difficult piece they've ever done. With its unique subject matter (12th Century nun/composer/scholar Hildegard von Bingen's years spent living secluded in a cell with her teacher), mix of modern and medieval music, and use of looping technology, it definitely feels like their most ambitious work, and perhaps the most rewarding because of it. I found myself moved to tears for reasons I can't explain. The musical taps into something deeply human, specifically what it means to be a female human in the world, and the performances by the five-woman cast, accompanied by a three-piece band, are simply stunning. If you like unique, original, boundary expanding music-theater, you do not want to miss this show. In the Green continues at Elision Playhouse in Crystal through March 9.

As a German minor at the College of St. Benedict (founded by Benedictine nuns), I have of course heard of Hildegard von Bingen, but I didn't know (or remember) much about her other than she was a cool German medieval nun. Elision provides a brief but thorough biography in the program, but it's really not necessary to know much about her to enjoy this show. The story mainly focuses on the time from when she was given to the church at age 8 (that's what people did in the Middle Ages) and assigned to live with the anchoress Jutta. They lived a life of seclusion, avoiding earthly pleasures or comfort. The mostly sung-through musical examines what life was like for Hildegard as she worked and starved and studied under Jutta's leadership. Jutta has buried her darkness and is in constant search of the light, but Hildegard discovers that you need to share your darkness with others, to see it and speak it and embrace it, in order to reach the light. After many years, Jutta dies and Hildegard choses to leave seclusion and live in the world, teaching and writing and speaking in a world run by men. Hildegard seems to have seen the light, but this musical reminds us that history, particularly the history of the Catholic Church, is complicated, and there is still darkness in Hildegard and the world.

the three Hildegards (photo by Jolie Morehouse Olson)
In the musical, Hildegard is portrayed by three actors as her hand (Abilene Olson), eye (Annie Schiferl), and mouth (Deidre Cochran). The three actors speak, sing, and move as one, as three parts of a whole. Jutta (Christine Wade) seems like the strong one, until her dark side, her shadow (portrayed by Emily Hensley) crawls out from where she was buried, standing up and demanding to be seen. It's an ingenious device by creator Grace McLean (who played Jutta in the original production), showing us different sides of each woman and allowing her to converse with herself. All five actors are incredible singers, and really beautifully portray the emotions of the stories as well.

the darkness and the light of Jutta (photo by Jolie Morehouse Olson)
The show begins with one of Hildegard's compositions, and it's haunting. We hear a bit of her music throughout the show, but mostly it's original and modern music. The piece uses a looper for some songs, which Christine as Jutta does to great effect (she also used these techniques in Islander a few years ago). It creates a very unique, sometimes jarring, but always emotionally true sound. This isn't a dance show, but Madeline Wall has designed some flowy movement that feels organic to the characters and helps to create the mood.

A scrim is hung on stage, closing off the cell, with some action happening in silhouette behind it. The three-piece band - Music Director Harrison Wade on keys, Erik Schee on percussion, and Jeff Miller on bass - sits off to one side and somewhat behind the scrim. Elison's resident director/designer Lindsay Fitzgerald once again has crafted a clear and cohesive story, using the stage space in front of and behind the scrim. Projections are utilized sparingly to show the world outside the cell, with some gorgeous effects created by lighting and the scrim. The cast is dressed in matching simple shapeless dresses - brown for the Hildegards, white for Jutta, and black for her Shadow.

Even though In the Green is set some 8-900 years in the past, it feels very modern, with themes that resonate, particularly for women. About how we need to share our darkness with others in order to, if not become whole, then to become integrated. Our darkness, our traumas, our history, are a part of us, not to be buried but to be acknowledged and seen. Hildegard, or at least this version of her, shows us that even though we're broken, we'll be all right. In the Green is a truly unique and beautiful creation, and thanks to Theatre Elision for bringing it to us and creating a production that I just can't imagine could be any better. It continues through March 9 and trust me, you don't want to miss it. Click here to purchase tickets on a sliding scale from $15 to $55.

I spent a blissful week last fall cruising down the Rhine River from Switzerland, through France and Germany, and into the Netherlands. I floated past the gorgeous countryside where Hildegard lived and worked, and knowing that this show was coming up, I was on the lookout for her. I did briefly find her, but if I did this trip again I might need to make a few side trips to visit some sights. Sign me up for the Hildegard von Bingen Rheinland tour!

a sign for tourists in Rüdesheim, Germany
near the Abbey Hildegard founded