Klasika, on at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's through this evening, is unlike any musical you've ever seen. First off, there is the subject matter: it concerns the strange Czech pastime of "tramping," in which citizens of the Czech Republic dress up as cowboys--or rather, their romanticized version of American cowboys--and hang out in the forest drinking Pilsner and swapping stories around the campfire. Barbara Adler, who is of Czech heritage, stumbled upon the phenomenon while doing research for her MFA in SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, of which Klasika serves as her graduating project. But that's only the beginning of the story. While doing fieldwork for her project in the Czech Republic in 2014, Adler met the Czech film director Jan Foukal, who was shooting a documentary for HBO on the tramping subculture; Adler soon found herself playing a fictionalized version of herself alongside Foukal in his film, the two of them toting around their musical instruments (he on guitar, she on accordion) as they improvised awkward conversations with themselves and the tramps they met.
In Klasika, Adler ramps the representational layers up an additional meta-level, introducing us to Bara (a winningly open and sincere Megan Stewart), a sound artist from Vancouver who wants to head to the Czech Republic to record the sounds of folks just before they put their arms around each other's shoulders. Once there, however, she falls in with Honza (Paul Paroczai), a stealth ethnographer who finds traditional interviews boring and so fashions a recording device out of his guitar so that he can capture what the tramps--and Bara herself--say in unguarded moments. We hear these recordings played back to us as part of the work's complex sound design, which also includes a framing device of Adler and her fellow MFA student Robert Leveroos (excellent as the musical's Narrator) looping their own complicit unreliability as storytellers in a radio broadcast booth.
But mostly this work is about the songs, with Adler rocking things out with her band, Ten Thousand Wolves, and drawing on her spoken word artistry to craft lyrics that are unconventionally "musical theatre-y" in the way that they elevate the conversational to the poetic--as when Bara sings to Honza about how she's just a little bit afraid of the dark. Not that we aren't also privy to some big numbers for even bigger voices--chief among them Ashley Aron's as Barb the Bootfitter. Not only does Barb give Bara some important advice about the need to grow into her cowboy boots, but she and her fellow Rodeo Queens (Dominique Wakeland and Julie Hammond) also teach Bara a lesson about the feminist fierceness of high hair, bedazzled jeans, and bluegrass--in whose lonesome sounds, just like Bara's field recordings of birdsong and sheep bleating, there is nevertheless community.
For more behind-the-scenes insight into the Rodeo Queens, as well as the composition and documentation of the musical as a whole, check out the digital archive Adler and director Kyla Gardiner have been building on the local online arts and culture magazine Vandocument.