Stop the Virgens
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Wednesday, October 19
Better than: Your average mass fatality.
There ought to be something lethal at the heart of a rock show, some hurts-so-good death drive that reminds you how glorious it is to live, to breathe, to dance. Karen O’s “psycho rock opera” Stop The Virgens—playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through the weekend—takes that fatal impulse seriously. By the piece’s end, 40 blood-spattered bodies litter the stage, victims of a sudden and violent plague. Lock up your daughters; post-punk can kill.
This mass demise and its ensuing resurrection are the closest this stylish, vacant show comes to narrative, frustrating the expectations of audience members who took seriously the idea that it would have the dramatic heft of an opera. O and co-creator KK Barrett create a world part Brothers Grimm and part Henry Darger, with a dash of Village of the Damned, but they haven’t borrowed any of the plots.
As the crowd files through a somewhat vaginal corridor haunted by shadowy figures, a low growling can be heard. In the main space, near a circular, womb-like stage, two women described as sentinels (one of them played by the indie mainstay Lili Taylor) stand still, wearing outfits that look inspired by both the garb worn by medieval nuns and blueberries.
Then a scrim falls away and O, wearing a black wig and “chic abominable snowman” attire, begins to sing. (During the show, she also dresses up like a water nymph, a levitating mother goddess, and Little Red Riding Hood; bonus points to anyone who can explain the molting purple unitard.) As she croons, an assembly of Virgens—all wearing platinum wigs—cluster around her. On the sides of the stage, 30 more young women, also in blond wigs and choir-robe minidresses, provide vocal backup.
The music ranges from lullabies to love songs to electropop piffle, but nearly all of it is aggressively lacking in content, save some violent imagery (“We’ll cut it out of your throat”) and the occasional goose for the dirty-minded. They might be about anything or nothing. If O and director Adam Rapp do have a story arc in mind, they don’t share it with the audience. Would it have killed someone to write a libretto, or to have O interact with the other people onstage?
Still, she’s a pleasure to listen to, with a voice always smoother and sweeter than you expect, a dark amber syrup with just a hint of grit. She’s a forceful, seductive singer, and the internal stillness to her stance benefits her in the context of a traditional rock show. But in these performance-art surroundings, she just seems stiff. And no matter what emotion she’s projecting—desire, fear, tranquility—her face doesn’t alter; she instead lets her costumes and coifs do the acting for her. Only at the show’s end, off script and introducing the band, does she seem to enjoy herself.
The audience enjoyed it, but in a polite and amused way. And there is much to enjoy—the microphone shaped like a claw, the occasionally baroque orchestrations (courtesy of music directors Sam Spiegel and Nick Zinner, aided by the City Strings), the wickedly rococo visuals. But where Stop The Virgens should be wild and anarchic, it seems rehearsed, unyielding, and hollow. You wish those Virgens would lose it already.
Critical bias: I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a few times in the early ’00s, but I haven’t listened to their recorded output post-Fever to Tell.
Overheard: A Virgen sighing to her boyfriend post-show, “I wasn’t so pleased with my death tonight.”
Random notebook dump: Rock goddess innovator or fashion-plate poseur? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.