Stepping into All flesh is grass, presented by the Other Theatre in the thickly walled nave of Espace Knox — a converted church in NDG — there is something distinctly and pleasantly cult-like about the ambiance. It’s chilly, it smells remarkably like Play-Doh and a lilac LED illuminates a circle on the floor as the seven performers pace in the shadows and a resonant man’s voice plays on a loop, talking about outer space: “a new psychological frontier.” You wonder if you’ve stepped into a community meeting not in fact intended for you, but hunker down in the single circle of seats regardless.
All flesh is grass is perhaps most of all a lesson on the 14th century composer Guillaume de Machaut, if the professor giving the talk, in this case Jean-François Daignault, was also a choir master and John Cage aficionado. The genre mash-up involved in the show is very ambitious to say the least. There is dancing, there is a sweet and largely unsuccessful attempt to get the audience to participate in a Machaut sing-a-long, there are monologues in English and in French on the nature of resistance, faith and immortality (as well as Machaut and Cage’s works) an interpretation of one of Cage’s scores and a scene envisioning the last moments of the last people on Earth.
This line-up may be somewhat frantic in all the ways that Dada can be, and yet the whole thing is interspersed with polyphonic singing, and this, it turns out, is just so beautiful it’s like being knocked on the head and having your impatience stunned out of you. So, while there are certainly moments that drag, or moments of clumsy stagecraft, like watching the choral ensemble stick Post-its on the floor around Daignault as he lies on the floor, each time you really start to fidget they all start singing again and in ways that resonate with the monologues that came before. About, for instance, the papal edicts banning exactly this type of singing as being “too exciting” and insufficiently “pure,” and about John Cage’s musical piece As Slow As Possible — an almost magically hubristic version of which was begun in 2001 and is slated to end in 2640.
It helps too, that the ensemble has an odd and jokey rapport with one another, so that it seems like you’re in the company of excessively confident dinner party guests rather than actors. There is perhaps more sermonizing than necessary, stretching our patience a little too far, but the final scenes, in which the performers don costumes evoking the sci-fi cousins of Venetian plague doctors everywhere, are spooky, and moreover, thoughtful. ■
All flesh is grass continues at Espace Knox (6215 Godfrey) November 15–16, 19–21, 26–27 & 29–30, 8–9:30 p.m. $15–$20