“I was delighted to learn from this charming song all about the qualities, habits and foibles of the unicorn, or ‘monoceron,’” a character says near the start of “The Hunt,” Kate Soper’s latest work of music theater.
“‘Monoceron,’” another replies, “is used to describe a real one-horned animal, whereas ‘unicornus’ is the term for the mythical creature” — only to nervously add, “I mean, I’m sure you already knew that.”
It’s a quintessentially Soper moment: the language ever-so-slightly elevated, the dialogue bookish, droll and self-effacing. But “The Hunt,” which premiered on Thursday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, is different from her other stage works.
That fun fact about the proper name for a unicorn is actually one of just a few brainy asides in this show. Plot-driven and focused, and unambiguously political, “The Hunt” is more conventional — and more easily enjoyable — than Soper’s discursive, essayistic theater pieces that explore lofty questions about art and love, like “Ipsa Dixit” (2016) or “The Romance of the Rose” (remarkably, another major stage premiere of hers from this year).
“The Hunt” most resembles Soper’s first music theater work, “Here Be Sirens” (2014), about three mythical sopranos passing time between encounters with doomed sailors, accompanying themselves at a piano. Now, fast-forward a bit to Middle Ages Europe, where three virgins, accompanying themselves on a violin and ukulele, have been hired by a royal court as bait for a unicorn, “whose conquest will bring riches to our kingdom, expansion of our realm, and everlasting power over all our enemies.”
What follows is a darkly funny fairy tale — set, according to the score, in “medieval and/or contemporary times” — about their 99 days on the job: playing the part of perfect maidens, singing songs about unicorns and occasionally indulging in a filthy riddle. Think “Waiting for Godot,” but with the female rebelliousness of a Sofia Coppola film.
Along the way, the three characters — sopranos, as in “Sirens” — begin to both fear and resent the king’s control over their bodies, with irony (“they said all the reading was disturbing my tranquillity”) that’s wry until it’s indignant. The only way out, to keep the unicorn from ever coming and to make a new life for themselves, is to take charge of their sexuality and, well, not be so pure anymore.
In program notes, Soper admits that “The Hunt” is “the least abstract thing I’ve made,” but that it could be pulled back into abstraction — to not be “a little bit too like ‘Sex and the City’ meets Margaret Atwood” — by Ashley Kelly Tata, the director, who also staged “Ipsa Dixit.”
Indeed, little of “The Hunt” suggests a literal treatment: neither Camilla Tassi’s projections that blend the aesthetic of illuminated manuscripts with selfie livestreams, nor Terese Wadden’s costumes, which evoke medieval maidenhood while revealing, under the performers’ dresses, white sneakers. Masha Tsimring’s lighting offers Brechtian distinction between dialogue and inner monologue, and Tata’s direction slowly dissolves pristine, satirized virginal presentation into something wilder, and free.
Crucial to all this is Aoshuang Zhang’s scenic design. The action of Soper’s libretto unfolds in a forest clearing and a castle; but at the Miller, everything took place within a unit set of wooden panels that made up a large proscenium-filling wall. If you squinted long enough, they could be distant relatives of tree trunks. Mostly, though, the space just looks like a prison.
And that’s how it feels over time for Fleur, Briar and Rue — the three virgins, who wanted this job, it emerges, to escape their different pasts, yet find themselves ambivalent about it. The room and board is nice, but after a while, the dumbly hot stable boy (a silent role played by Ian Edlund) begins to look increasingly tempting; so does any other latent desire.
Each performer charts this journey with charisma and persuasiveness, even if the jokes of Soper’s book don’t always land. As Rue, Hirona Amamiya matches sometimes showy, sometimes touching violin playing with petulant horniness and heart. Christiana Cole, as Briar, springs around the stage, often plucking the ukulele, with irrepressible energy and, in the end, more optimism than her fellow maidens.
Brett Umlauf, who performed alongside Soper in “Sirens,” has a bright, Kristen Chenoweth-like soprano that lends itself well to Fleur’s desperate respectability and sinister sunniness. On livestreamed updates for the kingdom, she smiles through saying that she has “a good feeling” about Day 17 … and 43 … and 82. But the moment she stops recording, her face slackens into a hilarious but lonely frown familiar to anyone who has ever filmed a selfie.
Together, they spin out the melodies of Soper’s score, which takes on a repetitive structure similar to the plot. (Mila Henry is the music director.) Each update from the virgins comes from the same sound world, just as each comment from the king unfurls over an electronic drone. Briar introduces deceptively straightforward folk songs, whose lyrics are pulled and adapted (sometimes even translated by Soper) from historical texts by Hildegard von Bingen, Thibaut de Champagne, Christina Rossetti and more. Entr’acte numbers step out of the action entirely for a solo ballad with a cappella backing.
In the end, the work adds up to something that few would qualify as absolutely an opera or a musical, or even a play with music — but, in classic Soper fashion, none of them and all of them at once.
Her finest touch in this score may be the occasional overlaying of three blocks of text for the sopranos, in which a small phrase is sung while the rest is babbled. It’s another trademark move, the kind of Soperian gesture that surfaces elsewhere in the singer-songwriter-meets-troubadour aesthetic; the carefree noodling on the instruments; the wit of a virtuosic violin solo gesture being met with the silly strum of the ukulele. Not to mention when, on a bad trip induced by sugar cubes, the virgins devolve into primitive communication, Meredith Monk-like tongue trilling that swirls in its phrasing, free of any traditional pitch or notation.
That scene, though, drags on. As is often the case with Soper’s stage works, you feel, near the end, as if the score has overstated itself, that it could have benefited from a quick snip of the garden shears.
What I do wish were longer is the run of “The Hunt” itself. Thursday’s premiere was one of just two performances. Not for the first time, Soper has written a show that could feasibly appeal to an Off Broadway crowd somewhere like Ars Nova. There, it could reach more people over more dates. And the more people who know about her, the better.
Repeats on Saturday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Manhattan; millertheatre.com.