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The Wildness, a metatheatrical soufflé of a collaboration between Ars Nova, the Play Company, and the rock band Sky-Pony, is many things at once: support group, revival meeting for millennials, archetypal fairytale journey — and a pretty rockin’ concert.
The piece’s layered conceit works like this: Every year, we’re told, a group of young urban artist-types convenes a musical ritual called the Wildness, an exorcism of doubt and anxiety that celebrates the participants’ overcoming of citified anomie by gathering as a band (the very one we’re hearing). This ceremony is based on a quirky personal mythology devised by Michael, the coven’s charismatic leader — now missing and much-mourned. It’s derived from stories he used to tell his sister, Lilli (Lilli Cooper), when they were both young and grieving for their dead mother. (In reality, The Wildness was devised by Kyle Jarrow and Lauren Worsham — who also perform — and is directed by Sam Buntrock.)
The proceedings reenact a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage undertaken by an intrepid princess (the Lilli figure), who ventures into a forbidding forest (also called the Wildness) seeking a cure for the ills of her village. The woods are purportedly infested with dragons, but what she finds instead is an abandoned cabin filled with (late-Eighties) relics of an enigmatic being known as the Creator, among them a boombox and cassette tapes. No monsters, only music.
You could call this narrative The Guitar Hero’s Journey: Lilli eschews conformity and self-doubt in favor of ecstatic dancing — she and her sidekick, Zira the Handmaiden (Worsham), boogie down with abandon — and awesome tunes. (The piece’s songs — by Jarrow — are always good, but Lilli really finds her groove after being tested in the forest.) The trip to the cabin becomes a poignant return to the innocent creative principle embodied by Michael, the absent avatar of troubled artistry. In the moving finale, we hear him on tape, singing a mournful, unfinished ballad about courage in the face of mortality.
This into-the-woods-and-back tale is belted with passion and verve by a great group of singers, who strut down a catwalk, bopping and grinding Chase Brock’s droll choreographies. Garbed in costumes resembling harajuku outfits glammed up by Vegas designers — sequins galore — the performers make this the rare concert musical that sustains the energy of an actual concert. Throughout, some light audience participation — temporarily blindfolding yourself; downing a ritual snack — throws spectators into the role of fellow celebrants.
The real Wildness being navigated here is the young artist’s life in New York — a heroic slog in the age of heroic rents. Periodically, the action pauses for an “overshare,” a moment in which audience volunteers (called “brave ones”) or performers confess their own worries: how artists keep going in the face of rejection; how you can find love in a grass-is-always-greener-one-swipe-away dating quagmire like NYC.
The Wildness speaks to a particular kind of audience: It’s relentlessly affirmative and more than a little wide-eyed, and it substitutes enthusiasm for nuance. But judging by the young people in the audience clapping, dancing, and singing along, it’s also the kind of buoying affirmation we all need to hear once in a while. If you’re out there in the wilderness of early adulthood — or remember keenly what that lonely feeling was like — it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we all make that solitary journey together.
The Wildness: Sky-Pony’s Rock Fairytale
Directed by Sam Buntrock
511 West 54th Street