Each visit to Oz by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O has been bigger, better and stronger. From the Metro to the Enmore via the Hordern and now an outrageous, crazy and yet artistically triumphant show at the Opera House. Hot on the heels of her bandmate (Nick Zinner’s 41 Strings show earlier this year) comes O’s psycho opera- Stop The Virgens.
Brooklyn may have seen the world premiere last year but Sydney got the first of five shows – held as part of Livid – at the Opera Theatre. Except that the venue seemed to have transformed into some wild realm or strange dimension because it was shrouded in darkness and punctuated by some eerie atmospherics. Co-creator and production designer KK Barrett (Being John Malkovich, Lost In Translation) has said that the idea was to get the audience to open up their senses. Place them in the dark and put them in a trance as they sit and wait with nary more than heartbeats and murmurs to tickle the senses. A tall sentinel in head-to-toe navy blue and wearing an elaborate costume that could’ve come from the most evil Disney witch stands front-and-centre before the orchestra pit handing out pink pieces of paper that had been torn out of a book.
A long chorus line of virgens in complete white (including their peroxide blonde, Warhol-esque wigs) assembles in two lines in the shadows. They look like they are straight out of a demonic cult. Soon the remaining pieces of paper are flung into the air in jubilation as screams and whistling wind create a jarring vibe to some soft, acoustic guitar. Karen is eventually revealed at the front of a round stage that is at an ungodly angle that defies gravity. Her glorious pipes open with five simple words: “Let’s begin at the end”. An amazing black costume is revealed as the younger virgens are “born” at her feet and writhe in pain. The band kicks in with “Get ‘Em On The Run” where Karen is in rock chick mode and performing something that could have been a traditional Yeah Yeah Yeahs song.
Stop The Virgens is a difficult piece to sum up. You’ve gotta realise this when even the creator has difficulty putting into words precisely what it all means. It was deliberately left vague and open to interpretation. At times it feels like a Rorschach test meaning it will be very different things to each individual. Some will see a lot more symbolism while others will walk away merely seeing blots on paper. It could be equally complex or simple but I think I’ll sit with the former camp and try to tease out what I make of it.
This is Karen O’s labour of love. It is autobiographical, a tad political and also feels rather spiritual. At times it plays out like some bizarre, pagan ritual not unlike Anton Corbjin’s “Atmosphere” video for Joy Division. Yet at other moments it seems in part like the Christian bible story of birth; teaching and work; death and rising to a new life. It is raw and forces of good and evil collide in the theatre’s clearly and cleverly marked positive and negative space. It all comes down to the basic primary style of twos i.e. life and death; happiness and sadness; and softness and hardness.
Over the course of the song cycle we see Karen O go from a power hungry vixen to a Queen lauded by a maypole dance. But like all tall poppies her downfall is a mere heartbeat away and rebirth as a priestess holds the next key. Along the journey there’s a hypnotic, acid trip called “Sugar” that seems equal parts Tommy and Hair. There are also plenty of soaring harmonies from the singers and a delicate and tender duet where O and Jason Grisell join forces in swansong. It could have been a baby cousin to “Maps” as O reveals like a Bride Stripped Bare: “When you leave your devotion makes me want to die”.
Musically the soundtrack resembles everything from pop cabaret to jazz shuffles, girl-group inspired R&B to punk/rock stomps. The musicians include co-musical director Zinner on guitar and fellow Yeah Yeah Yeah, Brian Chase on percussion. There was also an orchestra, string and brass sections plus Money Mark on keys and Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence – better known as the rhythm section from The Saboteurs/Raconteurs – playing their usual instruments.
Make no mistake; the production is unconventional and peculiar. Without a clear storyline it often means it has a rather haphazard feel, one only exacerbated by what seems like a cast of thousands appearing and disappearing into the void as virgens conjoin and split; gyrate, writhe and dance in this strange, dramatic mayhem. It’s believed Karen O was inspired by cinema and theatre in writing this piece. The theatrics are certainly evident in the presentation of the acting while both camps influence the visual aesthetic.
The ornate and decorative costumes and make-up are nothing short of wonderful and eye-popping. The former is the work of Christian Joy, the man famous for putting together Karen’s stage numbers when she tours with the boys. When these are coupled with the extraordinary production values they make for one altogether gorgeous and artistic piece that seems worthy of inclusion in the newly reopened MCA. A real vision of glittery sugar and spice-tinged punk and glam rock tussling in imperfect beauty.
Stop The Virgens began life in 2005 as a Karen O solo album. It has come a hell of a long way since then. She described it as the ace up her sleeve and the albatross around her neck perhaps because she always saw it as being far bigger than any single record. And while the music stands on its own two feet, we’re glad she saw it like this (along with a small army of others) who put on their thinking caps and ultimately got out of their comfort zones in the most divine way. In the process they’ve created something emotional, raw and manic. It’s a crazed fairytale inspired by real life, a beguiling and colourful spectacle and an intense epic vision with as many layers and ruffles as the runway-worthy costumes. So while there were plenty of feathers found on O’s sleeve here, Stop The Virgens has proved there are even more in her cap.
Photo provided by VIVID LIVE.