If you are not well versed with some of theatre’s backstage traditions and superstitions, you may be unfamiliar with the concept of the “ghost light.” It is a light that is kept on at all times in a theatre, even when the theater is empty or not being used. It is usually a bare bulb at the center of the stage — stark, but effective. Some say that its purpose is based in practicality and that the electric light allows people not to trip and injure themselves. When it was a gas light, it was to prevent the buildup of gas. While both of these explanations are plausible, most theatre people know that’s only the surface of meaning these lights provide. They are also rumored to appease or drive away the ghosts that theaters are known to attract and to provide protection to the performers still in the land of the living. This belief gets at the heart of “Animal Wisdom,” the first musical presented by dynamic and system-disrupting Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, now playing virtually.
I could not recommend this show enough. it is unique and beautiful, haunting (pun-intended) and powerful.
It does this piece a disservice to refer to it simply as a “musical.” Yes, there is music, and it is an integral part of the experience. But Heather Christian’s work goes so far beyond that. It is deeply personal, raw, and visceral while also being comic, cathartic, and soulful. The show starts out with a recommendation of how to consume it — at night, and all in one sitting. With a run time of just over two hours, I initially balked a bit at this. However, after experiencing it, I strongly recommend that you follow her instructions. The ethereal (and sometimes frightening) feeling of this performance would seem out of place in the daylight, and since the story and structure of the show is designed to take you on a complete journey, interruption would dampen its shine.
The performance consists of five performers, who play all the instruments, sing, and cover all the characters introduced within the show. At the helm and center is Christian who not only wrote the piece, but acts as our guide through her relationship with music, the world, and the ghosts that haunt both her and the rest of us. She describes herself as “a migraine suffering musician who talks to dead people.” The show breaks the fourth wall throughout as Christian guides us through her “requiem mass” — her attempt to give rest to some of the spirits following her, as well as some following us. She explores each of these spirits in turn, giving us some insight into their lives and deaths, as well as how they have affected hers. This is always linked with music, as she proclaims “once you learn how to play music, you’ll never be alone again.”
Christian also uses some unique methods to engage the audience throughout the show. For example, at the beginning, she informs you that she will ask you to engage in some participation at different points throughout the performance, and that “whether you do or not determines how you experience this.” As above, I wholeheartedly recommend full participation. She instructs you on a few things you’ll need, but I won’t forewarn you what those things will be. She gives you time to collect them during the show, with a song to accompany your frenzied search. There’s also a period where the media has been designed to be experienced 100% just by listening. Let go and fully immerse yourself (the screen is black, you won’t miss anything.) Also, because of the unique circumstances of this performance, Christian and the cast are able to utilize not only the entire stage, but also the audience and the whole Woolly Mammoth building as a part of the experience. I felt very lucky to have seen a show at the theater pre-pandemic so I could recognize the different parts of the building.
One can’t talk about this show without discussing the music. Christian incorporates a variety of musical styles and sentiments throughout the show, all to momentous affect. It is obvious that she and the other performers are a tight, cohesive unit, and the meaning of these songs pours out of them. Also, as I referenced above, all of these performers are taking on multiple responsibilities. Sasha Brown plays guitar and cello and provides vocals and steps in as a frightening spirit named Victor. Eric Farber plays percussion, provides vocals and represents the spirit Myles. B.E. Farrow plays bass and provides vocals as well, and Maya Sharpe does violin, vocals, and represents two different spirits — Johanna and Heloise. One of the most comedic moments for me was when all five portrayed Christian’s colorful piano teacher, Doris, simultaneously.
While the entire cast is strong, Christian is at the center of this story. Her journey is deeply personal and she makes herself vulnerable through both story and song. The sadness and longing in the song she sang about her grandmother Ella is what touched this reviewer most, with the concept of forever being a long time, but never being longer, ringing profoundly way past the last note that was played. I didn’t realize this until after I started watching, but the evening I viewed “Animal Wisdom” was the three year anniversary of the loss of my own grandmother. Like Christian, I lost my Mema to cancer, and the music and performance touched both nerves and heart. I could not discern what in this piece was a real part of Christian’s life and background, and what was creative invention. That to me is the very best achievement of theater — not being able to separate the real from the imagined.
Another achievement of this production is the staging. The production design by Christopher Bowser uses “ghost lights” throughout — an incredibly clever device to tie into the subject matter. It takes on an entirely different dynamic in the face of the affect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the world of theatre. Many theaters have sat empty for the past year, but the ghost light has almost taken on a new meaning as a beacon of hope. Even as these theaters sit empty for now, we will be back in them again. Also, the use of the space in Woolly Mammoth’s building, as well as the way the performance was shot, is a triumph. With film direction by Amber McGinnis and stage direction by Emilyn Kowaleski, the audience feels taken on a journey at every point.
I could not recommend this show enough. it is unique and beautiful, haunting (pun-intended) and powerful. If you have recently lost someone and the feelings are still very raw, it might be too much. But if you are prepared for a cathartic journey of music, I hope you’ll take the leap.
Running time: Approximately two hours.
Advisory: Appropriate for audiences 13 and over. Some adult content.
The Bushwick Starr’s production of “ANIMAL WISDOM” streams from May 15 – June 13, 2021 and is presented by American Conservatory Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Tickets can be purchased here.