“If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it, but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.”
– Ursula K le Guin, “American SF and The Other”, Science-Fiction Studies 7 (1975)
I’ve never believed the old saying that “there are no more stories to tell”. I find it rather telling that the people who often say this phrase are those who are themselves of a certain age. Since humanity is often unable to tell when they’re in the midst of a golden age, so they often delude themselves into thinking that things just had to be better way back when (much like a certain red hat-wearing political ideology). Neither the argument nor the people who make it are new.
In fact, there’s a comfort revisiting old stories. They laid the foundation for who we are as much as any stone monument that’s stood for centuries. The difference is that it’s easier to evolve and adapt a story than it is a building. Ovid knew this, obnoxious as he was. It’s why he, a Roman, could take a story from his Greek predecessors and add a new context that questioned the morals said predecessors held dear. (Ovid was the first to suggest that Medusa didn’t merely have an affair with Poseidon, but that he raped her.) Stories have to evolve in order to live on.
And, just as Ovid’s stories could put new spins on classic tales, so too are his tales subject to reexamination. His Metamorphosis tale of Procne and Philomena forms the basis of The Kilbanes’ new musical interpretation, Weightless. I think I heard of the show when it premiered last year at Z Space. I didn’t get to see that show, but I’m glad I saw it now. The evening prior, I saw another show about the power of retelling and reinterpreting tales throughout the ages. That show was three hours long. Weightless is barley over an hour, but presents a musical world you want to live in forever. That it does this with almost no sets or costumes is a testament to the folks who put the show together.
Let me say this off the bat: though this production is based on the classic Greek myth, The Kilbanes did a lot of well-chosen censorship, for lack of a better term. Should you choose to look up the original myth, be warned: it’s graphic. Horror film-graphic. As in, it would not surprise me if the story was an influence on Shakespeare’s Titus or was once performed at the Grand Guinol-graphic. Given that the performance I saw had a few kids in the audience, I think that was for the best. That doesn’t mean they skipped out on the story’s darker moments, just that they knew when to hold back on… certain details.
Speaking of the story: it’s the story of two sisters, Procne and Philomena (Kate Kilbane and Lila Blue, respectively), who live on an island with their father. “But they didn’t belong there,” our unnamed celestial narrator (Julia Brothers) tells us. “They didn’t belong anywhere.” When Procne is to be married off, the sisters flee, eventually landing on an abandoned island, where they live peacefully, until a dude shows up to ruin things.
The dude, Tereus (Josh Pollock), is an experienced hunter who catches the eye of fellow hunter Procne the way she does his. Soon, the unbreakable bond between the sisters has all-but-shattered. The result is a series of events – some planned, some not – which irreparably change the lives of all.
I won’t dare give more away, especially with the show being just over an hour, but that short runtime packs in more emotion and natural character growth that shows double that length. Front and center to all of this are Kate Kilbane and Lila Blue as the sisters. Their bios lean more towards the musical than acting, but that works fine in a through-song musical. The show is a cross between a theatrical workshop and a concert, with instruments and band fully visible on stage at all times – in fact, Kilbane is never without her guitar. This affords everyone the freedom to focus on vocals and instrumentation rather than proper blocking.
Most of that work is done by SF Playhouse veteran Julia Brothers as an unnamed God with a Bowie-esque fashion sense (via costumer Christine Cook). Humanity is a joke to her, and she narrates the action with (mostly) detached sense of amusement. For instance, when Procne first leaves with Tereus, she promises Philomena that she’ll only be gone a short time. “But,” the God informs us, “sex can be distracting.” Through Brothers’ performance, it’s easy to see how and why an immortal deity would take enough of an interest in two mortals to occasionally interfere in their lives.
The sisters’ travels, setbacks, and existential contemplations are all accentuated by amazing projection work by Hana Kim. These visuals and Gregory Kuhn’s sounds give the atmosphere an appropriately aethereal quality without sounding too much like one is lost in the New Age section of a record store. I’m not quite sure what to make of scenic designer Angrette McClosky’s oblong set pieces that float above the performers, but they didn’t distract from the story, so…
And, lest I forget what genre of play this is, there’s the music. It’s fantastic! Given that the pre-show playlist includes everything from Kanye West’s “I Am a God” to Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”, I didn’t know what to expect from the show proper. During the show, I would write down things like “Life in a Northern Town”, “Tori Amos”, and such, but those are just quick descriptors. Really, I was too busy nodding my head to try and think of all the musical allusions. This may not be traditional Broadway-style, but each song’s music and lyrics hew close to Stephen Sondheim’s old adage that a song should have a beginning, middle, and end, putting both the audience and characters in a different place than when the song began.
The Kilbanes’ songs not only do this, but they put a decidedly feminist spin on a story that’s known for making its two lead women victims first, characters second. Through the nameless God and the sisters having the entire point-of-view, it gives the characters a humanity that is equally heroic and heart-breaking.
Though I missed the original Z Space show, I’m glad I got to see this fantastic production. This low-key ACT production of a concert is infinitely more successful than the last time the theatre tried something similar with a larger budget. If you’re a theatre traditionalist (read: “snob”) who believes a play needs a proper stage with musical accompaniment out of sight, I’d still suggest giving this one a try. If you’re simply in the mood to spend an hour with a show that uses minimal resources to retell a classical fantasy, then you’ll have a great time with this one.
Weightless is scheduled to run until the 12th of May at ACT’s Strand Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 75 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.