In Holy Trinity Church School's massive basement, rendered whimsically creepy by cheap Christmas lights, tangled tree branches, utilitarian scaffolding, and immense translucent plastic curtains, veteran Chicago director Dado turns David Lang's Pulitzer-winning choral work—based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl"—into an ethereal, decentered performance installation for Facility Theatre. For 40 tantalizing, indecipherable minutes, about a dozen silent performers engage in repetitive, enigmatic actions, both concrete and abstract, while eight vocalists sing about an abused, Christ-like beggar girl who freezes to death on New Year's Eve.
Given the score's rhythmic complexity and harmonic idiosyncrasies (sly integrations of modal and medieval harmonies), the choral performance, under Alex Monroe's musical direction, is nearly unimpeachable. With its numerous subtly shifting ostinati and contrapuntal lines throughout, it's hard to fathom how the performers memorized the intricate piece, let alone managed to perform it without a conductor.
The nonmusical elements, which thankfully never bear a literal relation to the sung narrative, illuminate the work's deeper themes—suffering, empathy, transformation—as often as they obscure them. Frequently it's a case of too much at once: Lang's numerous overlapping lyrics make the libretto difficult enough to decipher, and adding the cluttered, scattershot actions regularly renders long stretches of the piece impenetrable.
Then again, with no visual center onstage, you can overlook the clutter and watch only what interests you. I ended up fixated on a guy meticulously butchering a side of beef—a hell of a resonant image alongside a story of a brutalized child. v