An operatic jam band rests between the Mystery an History sections of the Boswell Book Company after hours. They’re performing a musical response to Dana Spiotta’s novel Eat the Document. Spiotta’s there reading passages from the book amidst music inspired by it. Outside it’s a damp and chilly night on the East Side. If life was more like poetry, this would happen all the time. Monique Ross would hang out under "History" with her cello as Jack Forbes Wilson rested beneath "Mystery" on a keyboard. Eva Nimmer would hang out under "True Crime" with a kazoo jamming along with everyone else while Jill Anna Ponasik looked on near "Cloak and Dagger" not far from whatever author happened to wander into the bookstore that night. And this should just be a casual night at an indie bookstore after hours between Mystery and History, but it’s not. It’s a performance of the limited-run Milwaukee Opera Theatre show Antiology.
Fragments of narrative spoken by the author hang in the air in the darkened shop as the band performs music composed by John Glover and Kelley Rourke that blend into a show also featuring stylish operatic interpretations of Baby Boomer pop tunes including songs by The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Procol Harum (among others.)
Spiotta’s Eat The Document echoes through an evening of playfully classy boomer pop operatic feelings. The novel is about idealism and passion in the underground movement of the ‘70s resonating into the ‘90s. Some of that narrative is captured directly in the music. There opening night Spiotta seemed stiffly East Coast...her words were initially brittle and formal against the smooth backdrop of the music as they stretched out towards some sort of reflectively reflexive approximation of insight. To be fair, an author isn’t always the best person to read his or her own work and Spiotta DID fly all the way out to Milwaukee the day of the performance. Fatigue and general travel disorientation may have been a factor. That being said, it would be any author’s dream to read their work with this kind of casual orchestral back-up (because it's just...so cool.) It’s a shame Spiotta was only able to warm to it for a few moments of genuine fusion opening night. (That's all I'm saying.)
The single brightest spot in Spiotta’s otherwise stiff and largely academic reading happened right after she cut-in from the end of a beautiful articulation of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Jack Forbes Wilson was right there in the center of the band as the central focal point of it all. He's got this totally natural and organic emotional warmth about him that has no difficulty harnessing an entire audience to sing Bob Dylan with honesty that doesn't harbor the slightest shred of irony. It’s one of Dylan’s most recognizable tunes. There we are opening night. The song begins and Wilson invites everyone in the room to sing along. There’s this dazzlingly haunting connection flowing through audience and performers alike. It’s the kind of a melodic unity I’ve only occasionally felt in small, little open mics in bars and cafes in various snuggeries in and out of out-of-the-way corners of town. Wilson has such a warm presence. Dylan’s music gently electrifies everything. And just as the song fades out, Spiotta slides up and falls into the rhythm of the performance with a very genuinely heartfelt bit of narrative.
So there's a lot of Boomer pop. This is no jukebox musical, though. The operatic end of things lives quite vividly in a couple of pieces written by Glover and Rourke. My favorite has to be the anti-commercialist “Nicknames Are For for Friends.” It has a transcendentally haunting existential American dread about it. There’s a refrain that reverberates through the audience in singalong. I can honestly say that I’ve probably never expected to hear a room full of people in unison softly singing lyrics that include phrase “bottled soft drinks.” I could give context, but you really have to be there to experience it. Gives me chills just thinking about it.
So I didn’t like the book. Try as I might have, I couldn’t manage to get into the source material here. There are things being said in her work that are worth saying, but they don’t seem all that compelling or original to me. I realize that Spiotta’s Eat the Document won awards and everything, but to me it feels like a copy of a copy of a copy that’s echoing harmlessly into its own dazed postmodernism. Kind of reminds me of something Greil Marcus once said that keeps bumping into a passage from Chuck Palahniuk in the hazy firmament of my memory. To me it’s not terribly compelling, but I understand the appeal. Glover and Rourke have taken it and done something beautiful with it, though. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Antiology is a treasure. There’s such a lovely communal spiffiness binding it together that makes one long for the world to stop being so goddamned stiff. There’s too much conflict. The world needs to knock it off. The world needs to give up, give-in and be more poetic.
(And Jack Forbes Wilson needs to lead more singalongs. I mean it. As a culture and as a race of feeling, caring beings, we need more singalongs with Jack Forbes Wilson. I’m not even kidding.)
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s staging of Antiology runs through Oct. 12 at Boswell Book Company on 2559 N. Downer Ave. (There are still a couple of performances left!) For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.