Live theater is gradually returning, step by halting step. In New York City, a culmination will arrive in the fall with the reopening of Broadway theaters at full capacity. Theater companies have developed innovative modes of production in the meantime, ranging from the completely virtual to stripped-down live performances to hybrid experiences like the Byzantine Choral Project‘s current installation/event, Icons/Idols: In the Purple Room at the New Ohio Theatre.
If you follow my writing at all you’d probably guess that I couldn’t resist anything from a group with a name like the Byzantine Choral Project. But this production was also timed perfectly for a critic’s first dip into a physical performance space since the pandemic shut live theater down.
Told with prerecorded music and narration, Icons/Idols takes audience members one or two at a time through a sequence of vignettes in prepared sets inside the New Ohio. There’s no live action, and there are no actors present; instead, each visitor moves from space to space while listening to the track through their own earbuds from their own device. The result is an isolating experience but – after a few minutes of adjustment – also an absorbing, immersive one.
The tale comes from the icon wars of Byzantium in the late eighth century. Christianity’s internal conflict over whether it’s kosher to possess and display images of divine beings raged violently in Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, when Irene of Athens ruled as Regent and then Empress. The show recounts Irene’s story largely through choral singing, with music by Grace Oberhofer inspired by Byzantine chant. The music includes a bit of a hymn by Kassianí, the world’s earliest female composer known by name, who lived in and around Constantinople just after Irene’s reign. In a nice bit of synchronicity, the American choir Cappella Romana just released a history-making recording of Kassianí’s hymns (see my review).
Artfully dressed and lit, the sets welcome us into period locales like a massive columned abbey or church, and a bloody royal bedchamber (the purple room of the title). Massive webs of packing tape suggest, perhaps, the gloomy thought that we, like Irene, are tangled in the troubles of our own time. In any case the experience calls to mind the universality of what Irene found in hers: entrenched patriarchy, religious conflict, and always the fragility of human life (e.g. that bloodstained birthing bed).
Like many immersive, atmospheric installations, this one can be a bit disorienting. And for someone with degraded vision like me, it may be hard to find certain items we are directed to fix on. Also, once or twice the recorded instructions from the friendly eunuch-guide don’t quite match up with the physical reality. Fortunately there is a silent live human guide to point you in the right direction if you get off track.
The real triumph of the show is Oberhofer’s glorious musical realization of Helen Banner’s compelling lyrics. I hope as the theater world opens up we get to see and hear the tetralogy of choral plays of which this 40-minute piece is an offshoot. It’s a glimpse of a unique creative collaboration that deserves notice – accessible, beautiful, historically informed, and convincingly executed by a troupe of highly talented singers and actors who make you feel their presence even through a recording. This small step toward live theater has a big brainy spirit and a deep heart too.
Icons/Idols: In the Purple Room is at the New Ohio Theatre through May 22. Timed tickets are available online.