New Rock Musical is Rooted in Mythology

by Jean Schiffman

“Weightless” is adapted from one of the 250 myths that comprise Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”

“When you’re a student of literature and theater,” says Kate Kilbane, who, with her husband, Dan Moses, is half of the indie-rock duo the Kilbanes, “you walk around with these ghosts in your house”—you’re haunted by the characters in Greek and Roman mythology.

Kilbane segued from theater directing (which she studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts) to songwriting and guitar more than a decade ago, but the two strands of her artistic life melded when she was suddenly inspired to write and perform a series of songs based on the story of Medea, the ancient Greek sorceress who killed her own children to punish her faithless lover, Jason.

The Kilbanes, which is the couple’s performing name (nonprofessionally, they share the last name Moses), are in a conference room at Z Space late on a winter afternoon to discuss their latest project, the world premiere rock musical “Weightless.” Moses arrives, with a collapsible bicycle, straight from his downtown engineering job; Kilbane is a fulltime musician. They met in a pizza joint in Brooklyn, came West together and now live in Oakland with their two-year-old. 

“Weightless,” adapted from one of the 250 myths that comprise the 15 volumes of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” the Latin epic poem about love and transformation, is a hybrid form more rock concert than traditional stage musical, they explain. Its original songs and narration (the latter delivered by a wry and sharp-eyed god, played by Julia Brothers) tell of two sisters, Philomela and Procne, whose souls are bound together from birth but who are wrenched apart by a jealous and vindictive husband, Tereus (Josh Pollock, who also plays guitar in the onstage band). Bassist Kilbane is Procne, the older sister, who runs off with Tereus to his island, just for the day, she promises her sister—but has a baby and does not return. Yet she ultimately longs for Philomela (vocalist Lila Blue). Two non-characters comprise the rest of the band: music director Moses on keyboard and Dan Harris on drums; only the god does not play an instrument.

Kilbane was entranced by the story when she first read it: how Philomela, seeking Procne, is waylaid by Tereus, who cuts out her tongue and locks her up in order to keep the siblings apart; how the resourceful Philomela, speechless and trapped, unravels her dress and weaves her story into a tapestry; how Procne receives her coded message; and how the siblings eventually reunite and wreak murderous revenge upon Tereus.

“How strange and beautiful and powerful, what we’re capable of, the ways we find to speak when we are silenced, to tell our stories even when it seems impossible!” Kilbane marvels. For her, such stories feel almost ready-made for music: They’re about elemental human moments, “really stripped down, plotwise,” she says. “There are only a few points you really need to hit, and what’s there is the sense of emotion, of destiny or fate… Essentially this is for me about wanting to write your own story as a woman in the world.”

The Kilbanes have been working on “Weightless” for five years, presenting an early version at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and then developing it further under the auspices of Lisa Steindler at Z Space and Z’s frequent producing partner, Piece by Piece. In creating “Weightless,” musician/composer Moses and Kilbane plotted out the points in the story that called out for a song (eight to ten in the 75-minute piece) and then initially composed melodies separately; Kilbane wrote most of the lyrics. Then, together, they sang and improvised. In the final stages, they clarified the theatrically necessary role of the all-seeing narrator/god.

“Immediately, when I watched [a workshop version] a couple of years ago, it was so beautiful,” says locally based, nationally known director Becca Wolff, on the phone. “I think there’s something deeply dramatic about a mythical story,” she continues, “and the harmonies were gorgeous, the energy felt really deeply exciting.

“There’s musicals and then there’s rock music,” she continues, “and they’re sort of strange bedfellows.” In this rock concert-like drama, the band has a certain freedom to improvise; when songs reach an emotional moment, the band can just keep jamming—“a transformational experience,” she says.

Wolff and scenic designer Angrette McCloskey envision the ambiance as “a special kind of rock club,” with bleachers and a bar instead of seats, and projections that appear everywhere and which “insinuate themselves in a way you might not at first realize”, Wolff says. One of the big themes in the show, she observes, is the shamanic relationship between people and gods, and ultimately between people and animals—at the end, the characters are transformed into birds that take wing—and she expects the projections to provide a visual analog to that miraculous transformation.

Although the language is contemporary, the play should feel like it takes place any time between now and a thousand years ago, says Moses: “mythological time.” Kilbane adds, “I feel connected to these women. They could be me.” (She has a sister.) “There’s so much pain but also so much strength when you say, ‘This is who I am, this is how I want to live my life.’ And a sense of destiny, and what that means, or fighting against that,” as when Procne chooses her sister over her husband, and is willing to pay the price.

The sisters’ journey is violent and cathartic and transformational. At the end, it soars, weightlessly.

Feb. 22 → Mar. 18

Z Space

450 Florida St., San Francisco