Monday, October 06, 2008

The Wicker Man: a Rock Opera about the Ultimate Sacrifice

The first thing you need to know about the current production of The Wicker Man as a rock opera currently playing in San Francisco through Oct. 25 is that it is essentially a community-theater production of the original film. I like community theater, but it has its limitations. In this case, those limitations include a postage-stamp-sized stage, and no scenery beyond a reasonably deft faux stained-glassed window which is covered up after the first scene. Given those limitations, the production is a qualified delight.

The venue is The Dark Room, a seedy bar in the Mission which has been somewhat converted into a seedy theater. The bar remains along the left-hand wall serving as the home of the light and sound boards. Surprisingly, the sound system is audiophile-level superb and effortlessly and accurately delivered the casts' voices. The theater seats maybe a hundred and a BYOB (beer mostly) crowd of, maybe, forty showed up for Saturday night's show. I sat immediate in front of DAN FOLEY's (Captain, Harbormaster and Photographer) affable Mom and Aunt.

The script is quite faithful to the 1973 movie. I'm guessing that roughly half of the dialog is taken straight from the film. The setting has been moved "an island across the Bay", and the period is nebulous. The time-line is compressed a bit, as is the running time (maybe 85 minutes here from 100 in the movie). Minor changes to the film occur throughout. Summerisle's (STEFFANOS X) first name is "Lord", for instance, and May Morrison (ERIN LUCAS) is a tailor. The imaginary Wicker Man is placed prominently in the middle of the village green. Essentially, this stage production is The Wicker Man (1973) minus the music of Paul Giovanni plus the music of Jim Fourniadis.

The music is serviceable and suggestive of rock operas of the era (Hair,Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar) though a bit less ambitious. The rock-combo orchestrations are pre-recorded but the cast and sound-guy easily hit all the cues. The first song, a brief sermonette on a passage from Job sung by the lead, FLYNNE DE MARCO (Sargeant Neil Howie), and the finale, a contrapuntal piece between the chorus of Pagan islanders and Sergeant Howie, are both pretty good (I'm a sucker for polyphony). "The Landlord's Daughter" from the original is sung in its entirely, and a verse of "The Tinker of Rye" is sung by DAN FOLEY in an awkward scene transition.

The performances are enthusiastic and fairly broad. DE MARCO anchors the show reasonably well. He had some pitch problems in the first song, but his nerves seemed to settle thereafter. His Sergeant Howie references Woodward's fairly closely. STEFFANOS X's Lord Summerisle is suitably charismatic, and KHAMARA PETTUS' Willow is pretty and appropriately burlesque (probably the only reasonable choice given the lack of nudity or, you know, even stage walls). The various bit players generally suit their roles. Props to MIKL-EM for gamely playing the role of an eight-year old girl (Myrtle Morrison) in addition to the Grave Digger and the Doctor.

All in all, the show is well worth the price, and I recommend Bay Area Pagans checking it out. If you like the 1973 film, then this show is a lively and small variation on the same material. Be sure to bring a beer in a brown paper bag (or you will feel horribly out of fashion) and enjoy the romp.

Here's some textual criticism of the show from a Pagan perspective. Both the show and original film are largely unaware of Neo-Paganism (the show includes a invocation of the elements at the sacrifice which is not present in the film suggesting some additional familiarity), and that's okay. Do we, after all, really want to be portrayed as a community capable of conspiring to human sacrifice? Been there, done the Satanic Panic of the 80's. However, I do feel that the show misses some opportunities in its update.

Sergeant Howie's Scottish Presbyterian evangelicalism is quite a different flavor to that we are more familiar with in the US. Howie's faith is stern, austere, and ascetic. It might be more interesting to explore the character as a more scary kind of US evangelical: outgoing, compelled to witness no matter how awkward the situation, and utterly convinced that there existed a golden era of traditional, Red-state values no matter how little evidence there is that such an era actually existed. I expect that the character of Sergeant Howie would relate much more to the sufferings of Paul than Job, for instance.

Similarly, it might be more interesting to tie the Summerislanders closer to California, if that's where you wish to set the play. California was the home of The Peoples Temple and Heaven's Gate, after all, and a bunch of us go out to the desert every year to burn a giant figure of a man. FBI Agent Howie at Burning Man? Am I wrong or does it almost write itself?

But, of course, that would not be the Wicker Man. Nevertheless, the show might be a spicier if it incorporated more of the languages of both modern evangelicalism (WWJD, Jesus is my boyfriend, etc.) and modern Paganism (theoretical support for polyamory, anti-patriarchal rhetoric, fanatical Green lifestyle, etc.).