January in New York means slushy sidewalks, unfulfilled New Year's resolutions, and post-holiday urban malaise. With short days and plummeting temperatures, snow and longing fill the air of downtown Manhattan. For experimental chanteuse Heather Christian, these feelings are more than a bout of seasonal affective disorder. With her intimate, postmodern cabaret North, the singer-composer uses winter's bleak landscape to illustrate that emotional longing is more of a human condition than a seasonal one.
Parked at a grand piano amid a stage awash with monochromatic desolation and sparkly bridal frou-frou, Christian chirps out a concert of original material mixed with the likes of Chopin and the Beatles. Surrounded by televisions playing snowy videos (in both the meteorological and technological sense), a mobile forest of leafless trees, and her eclectic orchestra, the Arbornauts, she offers up a series of songs devoted to absent partners. There are a few gesture dances and a tongue-in-cheek airplane safety lecture, but there's no real plot or dialogue to speak of. Instead, North combines the symbolism of winter barrenness with departing jets and throws in a Matthew Barney-meets-Marie Antoinette sense of deconstructed rococo.
Granted, these postmodern flourishes are a bit well-worn for the downtown theatre set (yes, biscotti are passed to the audience at one point), and there are times when a lack of stage rigor causes the show to sag (transitions are a particularly messy area). And yet North still manages to combine its poetic imagery and associative narrative into a surprisingly moving event. At the center of it all is the angelic Christian, who delivers a mesmerizing performance that is both intimate and powerful. "You are somewhere north of me," she croons in a soulfully affected warble, her voice alternating between a whisper and a roar. Perhaps we are — like her distant partner — north of Christian, but even among all the snow and ice, we feel surprisingly close to her.
Presented by and at La MaMa E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St., NYC. Jan. 20-Feb. 2. Thu.-Sat., 10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.lamama.org.