Wait for the Album: ‘Animal Wisdom’ online by ACT and Woolly Mammoth

“It does what musicals are supposed to do: It rides the underlying currents of its moment and renders them glorious.”
– Mick LaSalle’s revival review of Purple Rain in the San Francisco Chronicle (1 January 1999)

When you see as much theatre as I used to, a year-plus-long separation from your chosen place of worship makes you nostalgic for even the fairly-recent past. As I watched this filmed musical co-produced by the ACT, I began to think of another ACT music-based project that graced the Geary stage. It was their 2017 production of A Night with Janis Joplin. After I wrote my review for that show, some took issue with my review’s assertation that the show was not a play. Yes, it was a production with performers pretending to be who they are not, but that made the show a tribute band performance, not a musical play.

Woolly Mammoth is similarly not a “play”, per se. It a concept album by Heather Christian which she chose to put on stage. It’s not a bad album by any means – in fact, had this been a live production, I likely would have bought the album in the lobby after the show. But the material here was never meant to be staged, no matter how lauded it was in New York.

The film begins on an un-personed stage filled with a few props and a noticeable piano. The on-screen text tells us that the best viewing experience is at night with the lights off. That’s an intriguing hook that would work well for, say, Wait Until Dark, but that’s meant to be a thriller. Animal Wisdom revolves around encounters with ghosts, but the bottom line of the show is that we shouldn’t be afraid of them. In that case, the light level is moot.

Heather Christian sees the light. (ACT/Woolly Mammoth)

Christian takes to the piano as she’s eventually joined by her band/co-stars. She tells of her upbringing in Natchez, Miss. where the spiritual women in her family shared with her a belief in contacting those who have passed on. Christian believes she’s encountered many proverbial and literal spirits in her lifetime, the anecdotes of which she shares with us. Occasionally, we’re expected to participate in her storytelling, even through the screens in our homes.

All of that is well and good, with this essentially being a Heather Christian solo show (her band notwithstanding). Had it been a proper solo show about one person’s fascinating brushes with the supernatural, it would likely make for an entertaining hour of theatre. Hell, had it been a through-song musical or proper concert about the narrative power of rock, gospel, and blues, it would have benefitted both those in the show and those of us watching.

Unfortunately, the concepts clash, the stories eventually become long-winded, and the filmed presentation proves that the audience participation element is by no means crucial to the show. At one point, we’re asked to close our eyes and just listen. On the off chance we didn’t, the screen just goes blank with text in the lower-left reading “Close your eyes”. This lasts a full 20 minutes as Christian and her band play some admittedly damn-good gospel & blues.

But there was no reason whatsoever to turn the lights off or even have the audience close their eyes… unless this was meant to be an album. As well-filmed as the visuals are (shot by Aiden Korotin and edited by Rachel Pearl), none of it is essential. The blackout sequence conclusively proves that this show works better in its audio-only form and would only be improved by the normal prose element being either removed or severely reduced. Christian created a concept album with the narrative glue of The Who’s Tommy, but she lacks a Ken Russell to give any weight to its theatrical form.

Eric Farber and Heather Christien in the stage/séance space. (Photo: Matt Ross for ACT/Woolly Mammoth)

That’s a shame, because Christian is far more gifted and welcoming a storyteller than Brexit-lover Roger Daltry. Her bandmates are all excellent musicians and singers whose acting skills vary, but Christian herself well embodies the spirits she believes have been following her since childhood. And her Amy Winehouse-esque voice flows smoothly from the multiple genres explored in the show.

At the risk of sounding harsh, Animal Wisdom is exemplary of the saying “Pick a lane.” Its inability to focus comes of less like björk-style eclecticism and more like someone at a buffet trying to pile their tray with food they’ll never finish in one sitting. And although streaming at home gives one the ability to pause at their leisure, it’s absurd that a two-hour-plus show denies the audience an intermission. It makes the viewer trapped where Christian’s presence makes one welcome.

Christian’s encounters with spirits has inspired a wonderful creative spark within her. Unfortunately, the current result is one that’s a bit taxing on the living.

GRADE:                                             C

Animal Wisdom is scheduled to stream until the 13th of June on the ACT website.
The film runs 2 hours 17 minutes with no intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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