Brooklyn-based eight-piece collective Sky-Pony presents a captivating treat for adventurous theatergoers with the DIY indie-rock opera The Wildness, which has been extended at Ars Nova through March 26. A collaboration with the Play Company, The Wildness is a multimedia fairy tale that filters such popular musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell through a Narnia-like aesthetic and video-game narrative that fantasy fans will go ga-ga over. The premise is that a group of “agnostic, generally apathetic millennials” is putting on its fifth annual ritual, known as the Wildness, in order to “purge out doubts and fears.” But their leader and founder, Michael, is missing, so they forge ahead without him. Everyone plays two characters, one a member of Sky-Pony, the other in the fable. Tony winner Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) serves as the host and plays Zira, a villager who accompanies Ada, the messianic princess (Lilli Cooper), on her dangerous travels through the Wildness, where they discover a mysterious cabin, belonging to “the builder,” filled with strange objects. We are told that the role of Ada is usually performed by Michael, but Lilli, his sister, has stepped in at the last minute, starting off by delivering the invocation: “Here’s to the artists, freaks, and wanderers too, we dedicate tonight to you.” The cast also includes Katie Lee Hill and Sharone Sayegh as handmaidens and backup singers, David Blasher as the cellist and the Powerful But Aging Ruler, and Obie winner Kyle Jarrow as the keymaster and the Voice from the Boombox, with Jamie Mohamdein on bass, Kevin Wunderlich on guitar, and Jeff Fernandes, wearing a Mr. Tumnus headpiece, on drums and playing villagers as well. Over the course of ninety minutes, the story explores faith and doubt, fear of death, sin and forgiveness, temptation and salvation, the coming rapture, wandering blind, and adherence to the old ways, haunted by a prophecy: “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.”
Religious references abound throughout The Wildness, which is divided into twelve sections, although it is no mere tent revival. Ada is identified as “the blessed heir with the facial hair”; Ada and Zira have names that evoke the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; several characters and two audience members deliver “overshares,” public confessions with a decidedly twelve-step edge; and Ada and Zira find a book in the cabin that changes everything. The Wildness is also very much about the fear of growing up, of the millennial generation staring adulthood in the face. Tony-nominated director Sam Buntrock (Sunday in the Park with George, Turn of the Screw at BAM) lets Sky-Pony strut its stuff, keeping up a rollicking, frolicking pace. The musical numbers, some of which appear on Sky-Pony’s debut album, December 2015’s Beautiful Monsters, include “The Lost Ones,” “The Waltz of the Inevitable Triumph of Doubt,” “Dragon,” and “Everyone Will Die,” with videos appearing on the many monitors throughout the space, which has been transformed by Kris Stone; a long, narrow stage (reminiscent of a cross?) cuts the theater in two, with the audience seated on both sides, either on ottomans or comfy couches. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are steampunk hip, Chase Brock’s choreography is fun, Sara Morgan’s props are utterly charming (oh, that miniature cabin on the ceiling!), and the clever text, by husband-and-wife Jarrow and Worsham (who, in a neat twist, is pregnant), is playfully self-referential. “I’m doubting whether I can pull off these sequin panties,” Lilli opines at one point. In the fifth section, Lauren says, “Ada’s mind was filled with questions. Her father had taught her about the Wildness that trapped them in their troubled village. But no one had actually seen a dragon. Could it be they weren’t there at all?” Lilli responds, “Zira didn’t wonder this. She knew we believe in many things we don’t see.” It’s a statement that sums up what the Wildness, and life itself, is really all about.