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Theatre in Review: The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale (Ars Nova/The Play Company)

Lauren Worsham. Photo: Ben Arons

If you're looking for some crystal blue persuasion or have been yearning for a glimpse of tangerine trees and marmalade skies, you might consider checking out The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale, a trippy evening of music and fantasy that seems to have landed at Ars Nova directly, via time warp, from the year 1969. Even if they are following some distinctly odd ideas down a creative cul-de-sac, a number of very talented young people are involved.

How's this for a proposition? The Wildness focus on a village surrounded by a forest allegedly populated with dragons. Thus, the citizenry prefers to stay put, guided by a Ruler who makes fortune-cookie pronouncements about faith. When the spring that provides their water turns foul, poisoning those who drink it, the Ruler announces that his daughter, the Blessed Heir, will make it clean again on a "rapturous" date in the near future. Ada, the BH, is excited to hear about her role, but trouble sets in when she, and her handmaiden, Zira, wander into the forest and discover a house that is clearly occupied by a man. For the first time, they must confront the possibility that the world is bigger and more complicated than the Ruler's cosmology suggests.

If you feel the blood in your veins clotting from so much whimsy, let me add that the company of actors and musicians are the members of a real band named Sky-Pony, and that they supposedly assemble yearly to reenact the story detailed above. This year, however, one of them, Michael, isn't present, for reasons unknown, and everyone is unhappy about the fact. Let me also add that a couple of audience members, known as "the brave ones," are led into the room blindfolded and are made to commence one of several sequences of "oversharing," in which each reveals a struggle with a dilemma or a crisis of faith. For example, at the performance I attended, a rather charming, if not very articulate, young man mulled over abandoning his lucrative career (unidentified) to pursue a creative endeavor (also unidentified). This cues a series of sequences in which the members of The Wildness wonder sorrowfully why Michael has abandoned them. One of the many weaknesses plaguing the show is that these scenes play like well-crafted audition monologues rather than revelations of real emotion; they are rendered with impeccable technique -- and they are never believable, not for a second.

There's more, including the sequence in which the entire audience sits blindfolded, but let me just say that by the time the actors passed around a bag of Jolly Rancher candies for us to share, I felt I had had quite enough sugar for the evening already, thank you. Still, the show remains watchable for a couple of reasons. Lilli Cooper, dressed in a skirt made of diaphanous layers of gold and a black bustier with red boning on top, cuts a commanding and glamorous figure as Ada, and she is in good company with the Zira of Lauren Worsham, the rare performer who can sing a lyric like "We always feel good when our panties have spangles" without making one nervously eye the exit. (Spangled panties are only one of the costume designer Tilly Grimes' many outrageous inventions; David Blasher, the group's cellist, is dressed in a feathery sheath that looks like he has donned an outfit made of a murder of crows.) Worsham, who is also several months pregnant, daringly performs an entire scene barely clad. Her voice blends beautifully with Cooper's; their vocal prowess helps anchor The Wildness' featherweight fancies in something that resembles the real world.

In addition, the songs -- lyrics by Worsham and Kyle Jarrow, music by Jarrow -- often strike distinctively melancholy notes of disillusionment. "Dragons" details Zira's growing unbelief ("But today I feel the wild in me/This dragon who's been riled in me/Shows her teeth again"); the violent, yet deeply felt "Beautiful Monster," and "Everyone Will Die," sung by Michael on video, capture his despair ("Amazing grace/How sweet the sound is/But I can't hear it/In this crazy place/I'm in/I can't hear it/No matter how hard I'm listening/I was blind/And still not seeing"). So attractive are the numbers that, at times, one wonders if they might not stand alone as a song cycle without all the cutesiness and life lessons waiting to be imparted.

Still, the members of the band, including Jarrow, are aces, and the director, Sam Buntrock, skillfully guides the action up and down the runway that the set designer, Kris Stone, uses to bisect the Ars Nova space; the space is topped by a retractable quilt canopy, and the audience members mostly sit on little cubed hassocks that are scattered throughout the room. Brian Tovar's inventive lighting reshapes the space using angles and colors; he also gets some interesting effects by mixing incandescent and LED sources. Tim O'Heir's sound design is fairly loud, yet the lyrics are always intelligible. Alex Basco Koch's projections -- of animated villages, scrolling Gothic texts, maps, and flames, among other things -- add plenty of visual interest.

So talented is everyone involved that one has a nagging feeling that they would be better off creating a more adult entertainment. The faux-innocent, mock-spontaneous tone of The Wildness eventually wears out its welcome. Still, its creators have highly theatrical imaginations; one would be a fool to bet against them. -- David Barbour

(1 March 2016)

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