Few things thrill me more than sacred medieval music and divine polymaths, so Grace McLean may have inadvertently written In the Green just for me?
Let’s talk about Hildegard von Bingen. A person so attuned to the multiplicity of existence, she decided to confront it, seemingly, from as many angles as she was allowed. She founded a monastery, wrote about medicine and natural history, experienced prophetic visions, and, yes, composed music, among many other remarkable accomplishments in poetry and philosophy.
In the Green recounts the origin of Hildegard’s exceptional life by recognizing the trauma from which she grew and how her relationship to the anchoress, Jutta, helped form her personhood in a space devoid of secular living. This space is a cell, in which Hildegard, like, Jutta, was to literally and figuratively dig her own grave in the name of divine enlightenment. She enters the cell at the age of eight after being tithed to the church. McLean has created a shattered version of Hildegard in the form of three pieces: Eye, Mouth, and Hand (Rachael Duddy, Hannah Whitney, and Ashley Pérez Flanagan, respectively), and throughout her time with Jutta (played by McLean), she is encouraged to reject the needs of her body as a way of reckoning with her grief—to become whole. Hildegard discovers Jutta’s own source of grief, her shadow (a staggering vocal performance by Mia Pak), and realizes that perhaps living in isolation and neglecting her own humanity is not the solution she was meant to find.
Duddy, Whitney, and Pérez Flanagan find synchronicity between McLean’s challenging harmonies and the physicality of their individual puppets (uncanny emblems and effigies by Amanda Villalobos), and it’s exciting to see and hear them navigate the piece in tandem. Intentional or not, McLean uses the relationship between polyphony (multiple melodic lines sung simultaneously in harmony) and monophony (a single melodic line without harmony) as a metaphor of subconscious reconciliation. Hildegard von Bingen is, perhaps, best known for her monophonic compositions, and in In the Green, her pursuit to become whole is directly reflected in the score’s musical textures. Most of the music we hear in the cell, especially from Hildegard, is polyphonic. As Eye, Mouth, and Hand, she seeks wholeness through Jutta’s divine guidance, eventually achieving an integrated self and thus a unified compositional voice. As Jutta, McLean masterfully uses her signature looper and sings against her own voice—complete with wonderfully unnerving and percussive mouth noises and guttural punctuations. The effect is polyphonic in nature, implying that Jutta’s solution for enlightened wholeness is inherently flawed. Though she’s managed to do it by herself, she is just as internally fractured, or broken, as Hildegard is upon entering the cell for the first time.
The concrete cell, complete with golden starburst door and matching fixtures, is a striking, brutalist structure from scenic designer, Kristen Robinson. When the interior of the cell is revealed, Robinson’s clever manipulations of an evidently static space are surprising. A formidable, almost celestial, disk is flown in to eclipse the cell’s interior and reveal an entirely new dimension. In combination with Barbara Samuels’ poetic and polarizing lighting, Robinson has manifested a vast landscape within a crawl space between this life and another. The sonic complexity of McLean’s live looper work is enhanced by Nicholas Pope’s sound design, often isolating her samples to specific speakers chiming in from multiple angles; the sound resonates and consumes the audience in all its unsettling cacophony. With a band complete with keys and bass (Ada Westfall), drums (Hiroyuki Matsuura), cello (Peter Pearson), and the rare and enticing appearance of a qanun (John Murchison), McLean and Kris Kukul’s orchestrations come to life under the direction of Westfall, whose leadership is essential to connecting McLean’s bespoke onstage music-making with the band in the wings.
In the Green concludes with a cyclical storytelling gesture in which Hildegard finds herself back where she began her journey but now as an entirely different person. It’s a profound, satisfying ending, but the coda that succeeds it feels not only unnecessary but also insubstantial. The specificity of Hildegard’s experience with Jutta is intriguing enough to pique the audience’s interest about the rest of her life without having to watch an additional fifteen-minute highlight reel interspersed with aspirational feminist generalities like, “Woman is a source of wisdom and a fount of joy.” Considering the extraordinary life Hildegard led after the events of In the Green take place, I understand McLean’s impulse to recognize the breadth of her work in what is ostensibly a montage of a few her greatest accomplishments and political confrontations. But in doing so, she leads the audience down a dramaturgical path without a fully realized ending or any momentum towards discovery.