Review: Prototype Festival 2024: Terce: A Practical Breviary

Heather Christian’s latest theatrical ritual makes its world premiere.

Rima Fand (center) appears in Heather Christian’s Terce: A Practical Breviary, directed by Keenan Tyler Oliphant, for Prototype at Irondale.
(© Maria Baranova)

Where to go after Oratorio for Living Things, a monumental work that swung for the fences in nothing less than a consideration of all life, history, and our place in the universe? To the heavens, it seems.

Heather Christian’s latest work, Terce: A Practical Breviary, is a reimagining of the “Terce,” the canonical 9am hour of service devoted to addressing the Holy Spirit. (Accordingly, some performances in this world-premiere run — taking place, fittingly, at the Space at Irondale within the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn — do indeed take place at 9am.) It’s Christian’s latest building block in her overall project to forge her own brand of spirituality amid these stormy times, and this one has a more overtly sociopolitical bent than either Oratorio or her 2017 piece Animal Wisdom. Performed by Christian and an ensemble of 37 women, this offbeat religious service is billed as a celebration of the Divine Feminine, which Christian, in her program note, equates with the “feminine” sides in all of us.

Heather Christian (center) wrote and stars in Terce: A Practical Breviary, directed by Keenan Tyler Oliphant, for Prototype at Irondale.
(© Maria Baranova)

As with her previous works, Christian’s libretto — drawing its inspiration from sources as various as Psalms in the Holy Bible and the writings of Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, and Robin Wall Kimmerer — can sometimes be frustratingly opaque when it doesn’t come off as merely twee. (As part of director Keenan Tyler Oliphant’s production, the words are projected onto two of the walls.) Still, there’s something to be said for an artist like Christian who fully commits to setting out such a deeply personal vision of the world, not caring how it may look to others, but instead inviting us to share in it, at least for a moment.

Her music makes it easy for us to do so. Christian’s intoxicating score ranges from contemplative prayer to raucous gospel evangelizing, and even includes a number made up entirely of human bird calls and an anguished improvisatory section. All of it is performed with infectious passion by Christian and her large ensemble.

But Oliphant’s production is just as important to Terce‘s inclusive effect. Even before the show begins, we’re invited to partake in pastries and beverages at two tables set up in the middle of the stage as the ensemble members prepare in the rafters above. And throughout the performance, the ensemble moves freely among audience members in various shades of blue dresses, cassocks, and robes by costume designer Brenda Abbandondolo (Christian, Oliphant, and Darlene Christian are credited with the show’s movement direction).

Viva DeConcini, Mona Seyed-Boloforosh, Heather Christian, Maya Sharpe, Mel Hsu, and Terry Dame appear in Terce: A Practical Breviary, directed by Keenan Tyler Oliphant, for Prototype at Irondale.
(© Maria Baranova)

Nick Kourtides’s sound design allows nearly every vocal and instrumental line to be heard clearly even with the space’s reverberant church acoustics, while lighting designer Masha Tsimring uses a variety of spotlights to highlight changes in mood. At one point, veils are seen extended from all four corners of the rafters to the center in Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s environmental design as if to suggest a kind of cloud descending over the performers. And then there’s the moment when Christian herself starts vacuuming throughout the space.

“I have no artistic restraint,” the ensemble sings at one point. “Every think I see, I paint / with the image of myself / I am the vine.” That is perhaps as succinct an encapsulation of Heather Christian’s artistic method as any, as is a line earlier in the show, in which the performers implore us to “Rather trust the poem than the prose.” In a sense, Terce: A Practical Breviary could be seen as Heather Christian’s own invocation of a divinely feminine muse, one that she invites us all to instinctually access. Even if we may find ourselves questioning this or that aspect after the experience has ended, Christian’s unbridled fervor is enough to carry the hour.

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