The myth of Philomela and Procne is as disturbingly violent as it is obscure. Via Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s the story of a Greek princess (Philomela) who requires royal protection on the journey from Athens to Thrace — only to wind up raped by the very king (Tereus) who was supposed to escort her safely. Defiant, she rebukes him, so he cuts out her tongue. Refusing to be silenced, she weaves a tapestry that tells her story and sends it to her sister Procne, who is Tereus’ queen. In a rage, Procne kills Itys, her own son by Tereus, and serves the boy to his father as a meal. As the revenge escalates, Tereus tries to kill them with an ax, but the gods transform them into birds.
The fairytales of the Brothers Grimm are pretty dark, but this story is especially dark — which made it the perfect subject material for rock-opera veterans The Kilbanes (the medea cycle, Eddie the Marvelous Who Will Save the World), the band anchored by husband-and-wife duo Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses. Their re-telling, Weightless, returns to San Francisco at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater for a brief run (April 30-May 12), with some modifications because this is the first time the show has been presented on a proscenium stage — as opposed to a black box, as it was during its original residency at Z Space and later at various festivals. From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, Kate Kilbane says, the blocking needed tweaks, and so did the narration.
“It’s narrated by a Greek god who’s just over it,” she says. “She’s seen it all, she’s tired of it, and she gets drawn into the story in spite of herself, interacting with the audience. She starts as a bridge between the story itself and the audience. We used to accomplish that in the crowd a lot and that’s no longer available to us in the same way, so we’ve been thinking hard about how to preserve and enhance that relationship.”
Written with Patti Smith in mind — and played by the formidable Julia Brothers — Kilbane describes the deity as something of an “androgynous Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust” period.
“She is more than beyond gender,” Kilbane says. “She is above it. She encompasses all.”
Because both Kilbane and Moses have music backgrounds, they chose to stage Weightless as a rock opera and not a standard musical. Simply put, they wanted their peers to know that it was “for them,”
“We did begin as a touring rock band, even though we’re highly theatrical and weird,” Kilbane says. “We feel like Tommy is more our legacy than like Mamma Mia!”
As more of a song cycle, where the narration mostly happens within the songs themselves — as opposed to alternating between song and book — Weightless inverts the story to give its female protagonists greater agency. That, Kilbane says, was one of the strongest pieces of constructive criticism as the opera has evolved.
“We’re sort of interested — as I think a lot of artists are these days — in finding the borderlands between what is a concert and what is a piece of theater,” Moses says, “and really carving out a space and really figuring out how we can retain the way a concert feels, the theatricality of that.”
That the myth is not well known was a virtue. Self-described “myth nerd” Kilbane first encountered it via Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and unlike stories such as Orpheus and Eurydice’s failed escape from Hades, the obscurity meant they could play “fast and loose” with their adaptation. For instance, Kilbane says, they nixed the cannibalism for fear that everyone would talk about it as “the play where they eat the baby.” But mostly, it was about opening up room for possibilities, not circumscribing them.
“The impossible, beautiful ending, where they all turn into birds — it felt like such a ridiculous theatrical challenge that felt very reachable, musically,” she says. “As musicians, we were like, ‘Oh, yeah! They turn into birds and fly away? We got this!’ That was what really drew us to it.”
The story’s narrative compactness — Kilbane’s preferred descriptor is “lumpy,” like one of the fables in the Book of Genesis that’s over in a flash — is what gives Weightless its power.
“Music has this power to enter the crevice of a moment and blow up all the feelings and complications in that moment,” Kilbane says. “You can hit all the major points and you’re done in four sentences. That’s exciting to us because each word can become a song.”
Weightless, through May 12 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., $15-$70, tickets here.