Review: ‘In the Green’ Fills Medieval Cell with a New Sound

By Paige Allen
July 15, 2019

Hildegard von Bingen is one of medieval history’s most enduring figures. A twelfth-century leader in the Catholic Church and a mystic visionary, Hildegard made significant contributions to religion, philosophy, music, science, language, and literature; she is regarded as a saint.

But before all that, Hildegard spent thirty years enclosed in a cell as handmaid to Jutta von Sponheim, an anchoress and abbess. What happened in that cell between those two women is the subject of Grace McLean’s new musical, In the Green. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans and presented through LCT3 at Lincoln Center through August 4, In the Green is just as explosively creative and difficult to define as the women who inspire it.

In the Green begins with an eight-year-old Hildegard (a puppet designed by Amanda Villalobos) arriving at the abbey to be given into Jutta’s care. A large, cylindrical tower dominates the stage; its single intricate, golden door is shut to the world (Kristen Robinson designed the set). From within the cell, we can hear the ethereal voice of Jutta (McLean) as she sings and chants.

As Hildegard enters the cell, the set rotates to reveal Jutta inside, enclosed by bare grey walls and a dark dirt floor, her burnt red dress and orange hair the only color in the somber space (costumes are by Oana Botez). Hildegard has transformed from a faceless puppet into three women, each holding a different oversized body part: a mouth (Ashley Pérez Flanagan), an eye (Rachael Duddy), and a hand (Hannah Whitney). Hildegard is broken, and she has come to Jutta to become whole again.

The mouth, eye, and hand come to represent the worldly desires Hildegard fights to control under Jutta’s firm guidance. Time loses its meaning and thirty years pass as the two women search for the light while grappling with the personal darknesses of their pasts. When Hildegard encounters a shadow of Jutta (Mia Pak), she realizes she cannot run from her pain and her resulting revelation forever separates her chosen path from that of Jutta.

Though abstract and otherworldly, In the Green does not lose itself in the weeds of symbolism and metaphor. “Weird” elements are motivated with clear intention, and the audience is willing to go on this metaphysical journey because we quickly care deeply about the two women we are following.

Within the cell, the musical is narrated through a combination of songs and rhyming, rhythmic text. As Jutta herself declares, she is in control of the world inside her living tomb, which is why she chose to shut herself inside. Jutta’s agency and power is reflected through In the Green’s music which incorporates looping technology.

Looper pedals or looping stations allow musicians to capture sound in live performance and play it back so the sound repeats, or loops, over and over again. In recent years, live looping has become increasingly popular as a single musician or performance artist can use loops to provide their own accompaniment and harmonies in live performance, creating the sound of a full ensemble.

McLean is one of the first artists to bring live looping technology into the sphere of musical theatre. As the strong-willed Jutta obsessed with control, McLean builds the music of In the Green herself (along with a small band) by live looping the percussive and textural sounds she makes with her mouth and voice, performing with a level of confidence and artistry only the mind behind the musical could achieve. McLean controls the looping with what is fashioned to look like rosary beads in her hands, and as she swings her arms to time the capture of the loops, her movements take on the feel of a ritualistic dance. Atop these layers of sound, she attacks her vocal lines with her signature soul.

While McLean uses looping to show how Jutta can fill and control the world inside her cell, the part of Hildegard is sung by three distinct actresses whose powerful voices blend together and resist each other to create a fractured and multi-faceted woman. Pak, too, deserves high praise for her precise and passionate voice as Jutta’s shadow self; a haunting duet between Pak and McLean gave me goosebumps. The full cast of in In the Green shows such vocal stamina and versatility that I wonder what they couldn’t sing.

The most unsatisfying part of the musical was its ending. After living for eighty minutes in the heads of Jutta and Hildegard, the audience is suddenly pulled through a crash course on the rest of Hildegard’s life, career, and philosophy. The content skimmed through in the last ten minutes could fill a whole other act if not an entire musical itself. Although the final moment of the play does serve the worthy goal of shaking up the perception of perfect saintliness surrounding Hildegard, I was left feeling that we fast-forwarded through a packed epilogue only so the play could make one more point before relinquishing its grip on us.

Whatever flaws it may have, In the Green succeeds in shedding light on two intelligent, strong, and complicated women and bringing a new sound to musical theatre to carry their voices. Although Jutta and Hildegard may have lived nine centuries before us, many of the challenges they faced as women in their world are sadly still present for women today. Through the spiritual journey of In the Green, we can explore our own questions of selfhood, trauma, and community. As Hildegard comes to believe, it is this act of sharing our burdens and brokenness which finally makes us whole.

BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars

All tickets for In the Green are $30! The theater is small, so any seat will give you a good view.

However, probably because of the affordability of the tickets and size of the house, there is not a ton of availability left, and LCT3 shows do not have student rush tickets. Seats are still available on TodayTix and through Telecharge.


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