Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Weightless was created by Oakland-based band The Kilbanes (composed of husband/wife team of Dan Moses and Kate Kilbane) and has been in development for several years, staged first at the 2012 SF Fringe Festival. The story is lovely and tragic by turns and (unlike most operas, rock or otherwise) ends on a redemptive, uplifting note. Procne and Philomela are sisters, bound by an eternal, unshakable love for each other (beautifully expressed in the song "Breath and Your Bones"), but one that is put to the test when Procne falls for the wrong man, Tereus, king of Thrace. Tereus invites her to his island, andagainst Philomela's pleadingProcne agrees to go, promising Philomela she will return soon. Tereus turns out to be abusive, possessive, and controlling, refusing to allow Procne to leave the island or for Philomela to come visit.
Enter God. Or, at least a god, played by Julia Brothers in a tailored pale burgundy pant suit that sets her apart from the more muted costuming (by Christine Crook) of the other players. Like most of the ancient Roman gods, this one is powerful, eternal ("The problem with living forever," she says, "is that it takes ... forever."), and most capricious. God takes pity on the sisters, allowing Philomela to fly to the islandbut not actually reuniting the sisters. That will be a challenge they must address on their own, overcoming the barbaric cruelty of Tereus to achieve a small measure of redemption in the closing number, "Lift Me Up."
The cast remains unchanged from the production at Z Space: Kilbane and Moses, of course, with singer Lila Blue, drummer Dan Harris, guitarist and vocalist Josh Pollock, and Julia Brothers. At that time, I felt Blue's voice veered into a thin breathiness too often, but she seems to have found the proper balance between strength and sensitivity, and it goes a long way in fleshing out the character of Philomela. Her harmonies with Kate Kilbane, who plays Procne, are enchanting: managing to somehow be both grounded and soaring. And when Kilbane lets loose with her power (especially coming on top of the thrilling lines she creates on her five-string bass), she seizes our attention, refusing to relinquish it until her purpose has been fulfilled.
Becca Wolff's staging in the previous incarnation was too staticthe cast rarely seemed to interact with each other, which undercut the inherent drama and emotion of the story, and though great strides have been made in beginning to show the story rather than merely telling it, Weightless still has miles to go in terms of dramatic staging.
On the plus side, Josh Pollock (playing Tereus, as well as guitar) still has a powerful, yet vulnerable, baritone that he uses to marvelous effect. There are times you can hear him heading for a note and you're not sure whether he will get to it, but he always doesand usually with gorgeous expression and phrasing. There is also a lovely moment (that I am relatively sure is new to this staging) when a dress descends and Philomela first releases a long fringe that represents her ripping the dress to shredsso she may reweave those shreds into a secret message for her sister.
While there are some lovely songs in Weightless, touching dramatic moments, and a powerful feminist subtext, the showdescribed as a rock operaneeds to embrace its operatic ambitions, find its wings, and soar into a new atmosphere of dramatic possibilities.
Weightless, through May 12, 2019 at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $25-$65, and are available at www.act-sf.org.