When you boil a show down to its most basic elements, there is one thing that every type of entertainment must do in order to be successful—make the audience feel something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a symphony or a rap battle, a poem or a TV show, to keep your attention, it must tap into your emotions. In particular, a play’s most fundamental purpose is to let audience members experience a life and perspective other than their own. In this respect, Z Space’s new rock opera, Weightless is utterly successful.
Weightless is a unique experience. Five years in the making, local rock group, The Kilbanes, wrote the show for Z Space. Part rock concert, part Greek tragedy and part experimental performance art, this show is truly something different. While the show does not always make its points as clearly as possible, it does make a fairly dark and bizarre story poignant and accessible to a modern audience.
Weightless is a loose retelling of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about two sisters, Procne and Philomela. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry—I hadn’t either. Their story is strange enough that even the Wikipedia page may make you raise an eyebrow. Essentially, Procne’s husband abuses Philomela and cuts out her tongue so she can’t tell her sister. Philomela weaves a tapestry for her sister to explain what happened and Procne is understandably upset. Less understandably, Procne then gets revenge by cooking their son and feeding his flesh to her husband (Weightless wisely chose to omit that part). The two sisters are transformed into a sparrow and a nightingale by the Greek gods before the husband can kill them. This supposedly explains why the nightingale’s song is so mournful. It’s a strange little tale that, while influential in western culture, isn’t very well known today for obvious reasons.
So you may be thinking that this story doesn’t sound like a fun night out. But amazingly, it is.
Instead of harping on the more gruesome aspects of the story, Weightless focuses on the relationship between the two sisters and their determination to be together against all odds. The electric connection between the two lead women is what drives the story forward and keeps the audience invested even when the story starts to get weird. The sisters’ repeated theme of “your heart is my home,” is an emotional anchor throughout the show that helps the audience understand their actions and motivations. The show is unexpected in practically every way, but it’s also touching and compelling.
Furthermore, the lighting, costume and projection design are fabulous. The projection design in particular is phenomenal. Lights on the slanted stage and stylized background birds greatly add to the storytelling during the show. Projected images are things that can go very wrong very quickly if they’re not lined up properly, or just poorly thought out. Projection Designer Hana Kim, however, uses projections so that they seamlessly contribute to the story and underscore poignant moments in the show.
The lighting and costume design is more understated in the show but very deliberate and intense too. By limiting the color palate to mostly white, black and gray, costume designer Christine Crook made the little bits of red on the actors stand out. Little splashes of red in shoes, a boa and the two sisters' hair nicely allude to the bloodiness in the later parts of the show. Ray Oppenheimer then picks this up in the lighting design, and several climactic scenes are swathed in red light.
As good as it is, Weightless is not flawless. Without a basic understanding of the story going in, a lot of the complexity of the show would be lost. There is a lot of bird imagery throughout that would be easy to miss if you didn’t read up on the myth beforehand. The show also heavily relies on narration, which is isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but seems oddly redundant in a rock opera. Many songs don’t totally explain what’s going on in the story, or the words aren’t clear enough to understand and then the narration is necessary. While the show is not trying to be the same as other rock operas (such as The Who’s Tommy and Green Day’s American Idiot), it is strange to have narration explaining to the audience the plot points that a song just outlined.
Despite this, it’s still a good show. Weightless, is fundamentally different than anything else you’re going to see right now. It’s a rock concert and a touching small-stage production. It’s a modern drama and an ancient myth. It’s interesting and very well produced, but if you’re looking for something conventional, you’re looking for a different show.
Weightless is a new rock opera by The Kilbanes produced by Z Space and Piece by Piece productions. The show is playing now through March 18, 2018 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. The show runs about an hour and fifteen minutes with a different warm up band before most performances (not Sundays), playing a one-hour set. Tickets range $20 - $50. Seating is on wooden risers. Anyone with difficulty walking or sitting should speak to the box office, (415) 626-0453, before purchasing tickets.
Photos courtesy of Julie Schuchard and Emily Sevin