Photo by Pak Han

Given the current messy, sad state of things, I sent the Femme Fatale an email asking if she was going to be attending one of the performances of Necessary Monsters, and if so, which one. I made my plans accordingly after receiving her response. While she was attending the show on Friday I was in Half Moon Bay celebrating my sister's birthday, so it worked out rather well. This little tidbit of information has more relevance than you may suspect, because the Femme Fatale, my sister- my entire family and probably everyone close to me for that matter- are all necessary monsters of my own design, though I don't mean that to sound exactly as it may come across.

What exactly is a "necessary monster," you ask? "A portrait of human culture and experience as told by our imaginations," says Carla Kihlstedt, paraphrasing Jose Luis Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings, where he writes:

 "We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man's imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature..."

It doesn't necessarily have to be a dragon- the relationships which dominate our lives can take on the same pattern as Borges' creatures and is it a stretch to suggest they serve a similar purpose in our real, not imagined, lives? That is to say that though Borges' imaginary beings are meant to be symbolic, or representational, I think they also have a place in reality. Sometimes the imaginary version of the beings in our lives are easier to accept than their real-life counterparts- at least in mine, which may be quite different than yours.

It makes sense to me that in some hard-to-define way we need these monsters and if they didn't exist our imagination would create them out of need. For me, the Femme Fatale is a "dragon,"  though in reading the descriptions of Borges's beasts perhaps she's a Lamia, but I suspect she sees herself as a Nymph. Penelope is also one of Borges' metaphorical dragons, but in truth I think she's a Simurgh, a kind, benevolent being who can't abide snakes. My sister can be either a Fairie or a Harpie, depending on her mood, and of course the The Little Chinese Man is my Doppleganger. Whether I view them as dragons or creatures of another form, they all populate different parts of my imagination, fulfilling different needs, which I have made real and manifest. At least I think so. It's hard to tell anymore, this has been going on for so long. Perhaps this is because I am a Satyr.

Kihlstedt goes on to say "Each monster is a facet of one human being," so one human being can represent a different [but necessary] monster to an individual, and in turn an individual can be comprised of several different monsters. This is how I understand it. Are you confused yet?

If you had seen Kihlstedt's brilliant performance piece on this subject, entitled what else- Necessary Monsters- a song-cycle based on characters found in Borges' book, all of this prattle would make much more sense. Falling somewhere between a concert as performance art, a steampunk opera, and theater, Necessary Monsters is one of the most moving things I've seen recently, though it's going to be extremely difficult to relay its essence. In part this is because I think Kihlstedt, who has been working on this piece for awhile, and it's something of a work in progress, has really tapped into something elemental about the nature of imagination and personality and has created an almost perfect vehicle to express it.

The show begins with a woman known only as "The Collector" (a superb turn by Denmo Ibrahim) walking about the stage organizing storage boxes into a "just so" order, as if doing so will keep the monsters inhabiting  her mind at bay. There's a box for each imaginary being, who one by one take their place onstage. Despite the desire of the The Collector to keep things nice and tidy, these creatures refuse to be contained and soon the stage is feels wonderfully chaotic- my thoughts during the first 15 minutes of music was that I was watching an opera performed by the family in the The Hills Have Eyes. That's meant to be a tremendous compliment.

Kihlstedt's music never flounders throughout piece, traversing a lot of different genres performed by seven musicians playing a multitude of instruments and wielding a wide array of vocal talents. Kihlstedt's opening number, "An Animal Dreamed," may be the most easily remembered. Singing in a voice that sounded like a theremin (maybe there was one on stage and I just didn't notice), it's an eerie invitation to follow her down a rabbit hole. The effect is continued when the Squonk (a being who cries at the drop of a tear, performed by vocalist and cellist Theresa Wong) cries endlessly while following a melody performed on her cello and followed by Kihlstedt's violin.

Seven other songs follow, each one representing a different being and creating a heady, captivating cumulative effect as the music constantly shifts. By the time Matthias Bossi's Hochigan (percussion and drums) backs Michael Mellender's (on bass among other instruments) Ink Monkey,  the music has become straightforward hard rock, only to turn back on itself to the Brechtian tone of Freddi Price's lascivious One Eyed Being in a white bowler. Price, by the way, is a dazzlingly talented multi-instrumentalist and plays a phenomenal trumpet.

Yes, I know this all sounds confusing and chaotic and it was, but it also worked beautifully. The rest of the talented ensemble is Dina Maccabee as the Nisna on viola and vocals and Rob Reich as the Lamed Wufnik on piano, accordion glockenspiel and voice. While the show had a visual design that looked decidedly handmade (including Wong's whimsical, Calder-esque headgear), the performance came across as assured, well-thought out and thoroughly rehearsed. If you have a chance to see it, I can't recommend it enough. If you click on this link, you can hear "An Animal Dreamed" and some other music from the work, as well as see a video of Kihlstedt discussing it.

When it was over, Necessary Monsters left me in a decidedly odd mood. When we returned to my place, I felt compelled to watch a horror movie that somehow conveyed this. Awfully enough, I thought that the only thing that could follow such a strongly philosophical performance was Martyrs- a film Penelope would absolutely abhor. I have no idea what I was thinking, but thankfully it wasn't available on Netflix streaming and I gave up on trying to find the "right" choice. Bowls of popcorn and glasses of bourbon before us, we settled in to watch something neither of us found worthwhile and soon abandoned it for some more music.

At a quarter to one in the morning, I received a text message from the Femme Fatale, saying she hoped we enjoyed the show- or something like that.

Pak Han has a gallery of wonderful photos taken during what looks like a rehearsal here.

Josh Kosman of the SF Chronicle has a much more succinct review here.