Energetic and well sung, with an electrifying rock score, The Wildness at Ars Nova is undermined by a book that cobbles together elements that don’t always blend fluidly. Written by Lauren Worsham and Kyle Jarrow (the latter composed the score), the story involves a group of millennials who come together every year for an event called “The Wildness” in order “to purge our doubts and fears,” says the bandleader, Kyle. (The character Kyle is played by Jarrow; all the actors use real first names for their millennial roles.) At this gathering the band and singers, a Brooklyn group called Sky-Pony, enact a fairy tale first related by one of their group, Michael.
This year, the fifth of “The Wildness,” Michael is not present. He has disappeared without explanation. His sister, Lilli, therefore, must play the part of Princess Ada in the fairy tale, which has 12 chapters. (Apparently Michael cross-dressed for the part.) Worsham plays Lilli’s friend Lauren and Ada’s “handmaiden,” Zira; other band members play characters in the story-within-a-story. For instance, David Blasher, a cellist, plays David and also the Ruler, Princess Ada’s father, who forbids the villagers to leave their city and enter the surrounding forest, a.k.a. the Wildness, because of dragons living there.
But the city also faces a crisis: the drinking water has turned brackish. (If this plot element existed before the events in Flint, Mich., it plays awkwardly now.) According to the ruler, “The spring turns foul when our faith falters/Only the blessed heir can make it pure again./On sunrise of the second day of the third week/of the fourth moon/Ada will lead us into a rapturous new era.”
If this sounds silly in the description, it is less so under Sam Buntrock’s excellent direction, using a traverse stage with terrific club lighting by Brian Tovar. Still, the script feels disjointed as it echoes a variety of sources. For instance, lyrics from the first song—“New to the city, nothing going how you planned/You’re lost and kind of artistic/So…you start a rock band”—may pinpoint millennial angst, but they also hark back to the Lost Generation of the 1920s, only with a more adolescent vibe.
Venturing into the forest, Ada and Zira find an empty cabin with six “magical” objects: candy, a knife, a mirror, a gift-wrapped book, a boot and a coat. The cabin is empty, but they revisit it periodically to wonder about the Builder, apparently never having learned the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Occasionally the fairy tale is interrupted for “oversharing” by cast members or two people chosen beforehand from the audience. The latter, dubbed the “Brave Ones,” spill the beans about some personal crisis as if they were in a psyche-building therapy session. When the performers overshare, they mopingly recall the missing Michael with a good deal more anguish and feeling than the audience can muster. At the end of each oversharing, the audience is encouraged to respond: “You’re not alone.” (It’s an echo that invites unfavorable comparison with Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, which also involves magical objects and forays into a creepy forest.)
At other times the language takes on a strangely Christian revivalist tone, as when Kyle urges a call-and-response.
Kyle: “As Zira and Ada doubted themselves, haven’t we all?”
Audience: “Yes, indeed.”
Kyle: “As they struggled with temptation, haven’t we all?”
Audience: “Yes, indeed.”
The eclecticism of adolescent angst, millennial disaffection, team building, and fundamentalist Christianity gets a further twist from the punk outfits—miniskirts, frilly stockings with garters, and sparkling bodices—that Tilly Grimes has designed for the women.
Yet another shift in tonality occurs as Ada confronts her father with the truth that there are no dragons in the woods, and the fear he has instilled in the populace is just a form of control. In a trite scene, the king acknowledges the deception, but contends that the people can’t handle the truth. After Ada defies him and discloses the lie and the existence of the cabin, the violent uproar that ensues justifies her father’s view that a dictatorship along Stalinist lines is more stable than a democracy.
Topping it all off is a finale with the lyrics: “Everyone will end up with nothing, and though I don’t know why, it makes me feel better.” Seemingly intended as a communal affirmation, the song comes across rather as eleventh-hour millennial Schadenfreude. It only makes one wish that the collage-like book could match the quality of the music and performances in this respectable, if muddled, effort.
Ars Nova (511 W. 54th St., between 10th and 11th avenues) in collaboration with the Play Company presents The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale through March 26. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; with select Fridays at 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $35, with special $10 tickets for the 10 p.m. performances. Tickets are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting Arsnovanyc.com.