From left, Dan Moses, Kate Kilbane and Julia Brothers appear in “Weightless” at The Strand, presented by American Conservatory Theater. (Courtesy Julie Schuchard)

Ancient poem becomes modern musical in ‘Weightless’

Kilbanes’ innovative rock opera onstage at ACT’s Strand

Many minutes into “Weightless,” the self-described rock opera by the Kilbanes, you might find yourself wondering what this pleasant woman-driven concert is doing onstage at the Strand under the aegis of American Conservatory Theater.

Frontwoman Kate Kilbane and her band play, and she and performer Lila Blue sing ethereal if occasionally indecipherable lyrics that lilt and wail, float and pound. Kilbane also steps lightly into narrator mode to offer context for the songs where overt and expository stage action seems missing. It is all lovely, but is it theater?

It is, once Julia Brothers enters, parading a draped greatcoat, arched brow and a rock-star swagger to announce herself as a god. You don’t doubt her for a minute, and she cements the impression with a downright devilish combination of sardonic hauteur and genuine bemused fascination at the naively self-destructive antics of mere mortals.

The objects of her interest are Procne and Philomela, sisters who run away from home to avoid being separated by an arranged marriage for one of them. They build an idyllic existence at the seashore, fantasizing about the goddess Diana and other male-free interests.

That happiness is, of course, irreparably altered when guitarist Josh Pollock steps into the spotlight as Tereus, an island-dwelling hunter who confuses and seduces Procne. With his sexy, gravelly growl and louche stance, Pollock radiates undeniable appeal, and Kilbane beautifully works through Procne’s disorienting sexual awakening.

“Weightless” was developed at Z Space and uses this story from Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses” as the base through which The Kilbanes – songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Kate and her songwriter-keyboardist-husband Dan Moses – weave their ultimately winning score over a compact 75 minutes.

The production is blessed with stagecraft prowess that enhances the storytelling. What may feel oversimplified in Angrette McCloskey’s basic interconnected platforms on the ground is balanced by the mysterious, amorphous forms suspended above the performers. Part chrysalis waiting for the coming transformations, they also become the literally pulsing, beating heart of the story when overlaid by expert projections by the continually inspired Hana S. Kim and lighting by Ray Oppenheimer.

So, is it theater? Yes, and it’s part of an exciting, evolving facet of the continuum of styles and disciplines.

The Kilbanes, with their alternately soaring, pounding, exuberant and often heartbreaking sound, are vibrant new theater-makers; they join The Bengsons (“Hundred Days”) and GrooveLily (“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”) and other modern musicians in expanding the form through innovative and passionate new approaches to musical storytelling.

REVIEW

Weightless

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; closes May 12

Tickets: $30 to $110

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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