A religious superstar from the 1100s receives a spirited makeover in Grace McLean’s “In the Green” at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center.
Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary Christian mystic. At the age of a first grader of our era, Hildegard was given by her parents to be a handmaiden to a cloistered German penitent. After 25 years, Hildegard emerged, and made up for lost time.
She produced reams of music and art, wrote extensively on theology, science and medicine, and had her renowned visions. Today, she is venerated as a saint.
McLean’s approach is musical, and five actresses — all in outstanding voice — deliver an intense and challenging portrait of this capacious heroine.
The journey is an internal one, and the anguish of the characters’ quests suits the solitary confinement imposed upon them.
The terrain is hallucinatory. Perhaps to best serve the incantations and lofty swoops of her score, McLean divides, and then amplifies, her Hildegard into a trio. Not quite chorus and not quite segmented, more like facets of a singular mystery. This Hildegard, seeking the divine, tosses in the wake of her capricious patroness, Jutta. McLean plays Jutta with steely command.
Tight struggles, against one another or in restless searches for meaning, keep these two characters at odds. And with lamentations against fate and the dangers of mankind, they define the onward progress of Hildegard’s quest to know herself, and her God. The battle of light and dark is never far away in this expressionistic domain, where any understanding seems a whisper out of reach.
The designs and direction suit the author’s start rendition of Hildegard. Circles, arcs and glimpses of light — along with walls, closed doors and searching eyes — are continual motifs. Nicholas Pope’s sound design adds much more to the wobble of gravity here.
Kristen Robinson’s set enforces a sense of confinement, and director Lee Sunday Evans keeps the three Hildegards at a restless prowl. The orchestrations (by the omnipresent McLean, with Kris Kukul) are tart and feathery, perfect for Lincoln Center Theater’s intimate Claire Tow.
The reach into the contradictions of the 12th century includes diverse musical techniques. The performances are sharply focused, always within the hypnotic jitter of the score, which embraces spiritual isolation with echoes of Gregorian chant, hip-hop, folklore and opera — always crisply sung.
The three actresses playing Hildegard — Rachael Duddy, Ashley Perez Flanagan and Hannah Whitney — are locked in, and deliver this difficult material in forthright clarity of tone and emotion.
Amanda Villalobos supplies deft puppetry to bookend the tale, and the simple monastic costumes of Oana Botez offer a counterpoint dress code for this free dive into a world of religious ecstasy and visions.
McLean’s music celebrates the mystic intensity of her subject, and the triptych of Hildegard expands the saint’s voice. But the effect, mesmerizing as it may be, serves as a mere clue to Hildegard’s impact on medieval scholarship, a vast output across disciplines which lurks untapped amid the byways of “In the Green.”