When Milwaukee Opera Theatre Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik introduced “Antiology” to the small but warm crowd at Boswell’s Book Company on Friday night, she tried to prepare us for what we were about to see; part literary reading by New York author Dana Spiotta, part acoustically influenced tribute to ’70s pop music, and part original opera, performed by a chill group of local vocalists and musicians. But that’s just the beginning of the story behind the story. Ponasik explained that the 75-minute show was orginally inspired by the seemingly disparate elements of admiration for Spiotta’s novel “Eat the Document,” interest in exploring catastrophic data loss, and addressing the general lack of hootenannies in the lives of the creative team. These impulses are mixed with the other de facto features of an MOT show, including musical experimentation, new opera composition, and the use of unorthodox performance spaces to create something challenging and unique.
And once you see it, it totally makes sense.
Actually “Antiology” does much more than fit these unwieldy puzzle pieces into a new picture; it is a joyous mash-up of music and emotion that crosses generations, explores complicated relationships, and traces the evolution of political activism through the lives of two key players in the protest movements of the ’70s.
The evening begins with a hymn-like invocation, the eerily beautiful, wordless song “Our Prayer” off a late Beach Boys album. Then, using the American History, True Crime, and Mystery sections of Boswell’s bookshelves as a backdrop, Spiotta reads a few paragraphs from the points of view of the three main characters in her lyrical book “Eat the Document.” Behind her, lighting in vibrant neon green, orange, hot pink and purple bounce off the books for sale and the faces of the musicians, listening eagerly for their cue.
We meet Mary in the early ’70s, an anti-war demonstrator on the run after a political protest involving a bomb went wrong. In a nameless hotel room in California she erases her old life and begins a new one, starting with a new name to avoid the authorities. Fast forward to the 1990s. Mary’s teenage son Jason knows nothing about his mom’s former life, just that she seems dull and sad, and likes to drink a lot of white wine spritzers in the evenings. They tentatively connect over the music of Mary’s youth, like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” It’s the soundtrack of an era Jason will never really understand and Mary can’t talk about.
Meanwhile Mary’s former resistance fighter boyfriend is working as a bartender in a disappointing present. He has also changed his name and shed most of his past life. Now in his 50s, Nash embarks on a new venture. He partners with a bitter Vietnam vet to run a lefty bookstore called Prairie Fire, where current and former radicals can meet around a long wooden table to discuss plans to disrupt the status quo and overthrow the man.
In between carefully curated snippets of the book, the ten member Operatic Jam Band plays and sings songs that are referenced in the text, or at least match the mood. Almost all of the singer/musicians play multiple instruments, busting out a kazoo, typewriter, accordian, melodica, banjo or set of spoons, as the music demands. Particularly affecting is Monique Ross’s cello, which blends suprisingly well with the pop songs. Not exactly unplugged, (electric guitars, bass guitars and a synthesizer form the backbone of the accompaniment) the music has a softer, more homemade vibe, a million miles away from the stadium tours that superstars regularly play. The result is a stripped down sound that demonstrates how musically complicated some of those former top ten hits are.
The band members also take turns on lead vocals, displaying a wide range of styles that all work to revisit the iconic music, not to replicate it. Jack Forbes Wilson leads the ensemble with his customary enthusiasm, his fingers fluttering over the keys of a petite red keyboard, indicating entrances and holds for the group with a bob of his head. At times he also encourages the audience to join in singing the chorus of ’70s standards, and we are happy to oblige.
While the music that the characters Mary and Jason share is indicated clearly in the text of “Eat the Document,” it was up to collaborators John Glover and Kelley Rourke to create Nash’s sound. The accomplished composer and lyricist team who previously penned “Guns n’ Rosenkavalier” and “Lucy” for Milwaukee Opera Theater wrote three original songs for the evening, with input from noted operatic baritone Andy Wilkowske.
At this point, tonally the show swings from grainy, textured phrases, expected from friends singing around a campfire to a leading man coming center stage in an orchestra hall to deliver an aria. Wilkowske has an enchanting and powerful instrument as well as plenty of charisma onstage, so the audience gladly follows when the show segues from tight harmonies of surfing songs to Nash’s first piece, “Unyielding.” Angular, dark and abrupt by comparison to the rest of the program, it’s a disruptive mission statement for Nash, who struggles to reconcile his old values with this new reality. “Nicknames Are for Friends,” is friendlier, and again filled with ideals Nash is trying to uphold, even if they are only symbolic – like refusing to call brands of multi-national companies by a shorter moniker. (After all, the Coca-Cola company is not going to be there when you really need a hand.) And the bittersweet song “The Point,” details modern plans for protesting, which have nothing to do with changing hearts and minds. Instead it describes a well choreographed flashmob that exists just because “we like to dance.”
The evening ends with “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which Mary mentions as she recalls a chance meeting with a barefoot and drunk Brian Wilson in an L.A. bar during the ’80s. It’s a song he always liked, that doesn’t really mean anything, he explains as he picks it out on the jukebox. And like the liturgical “Our Prayer,” from the show’s opening, it feels like the closing hymn of a meditative church service.
Though clearly in its formative stages, “Antiology” succeeds in layering pop music, literature, opera, and politics in postcards to the audience. With a taste of all these elements intersecting, we are as curious as Jason is about discovering more of the story.