Let's start with what Wilderness Plots
is not. The song-and-story cycle, based on a collection of 50 short stories by Scott Russell Sanders about the settlement of the Ohio Valley between 1790 and 1850, is not a work of musical theater, as that genre is traditionally understood. There are theatrical aspects. The hour and 45 minute show has been performed in theaters, including last weekend on the upper stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.
An overture opened the show, accompanied by a video slideshow featuring rural photographs that could have been taken in Indiana in the 19th century. Spotlights sought out the performers. Sanders, who read from his work throughout the night, opened and closed the show by taking the role of something of a tout or barker for the Midwest, who tells of a land that offers the enterprising man a chance to make his own fortune or kill himself trying. And one song, "Ice Mountains & Hairy Elephants," was performed in character by the five musicians and songwriters gathered for the show, with Tim Grimm playing a surveyor who tells townspeople that glaciers cut into the stone, and the other performers - Krista Detor, Tom Roznowski, Carrie Newcomer and Michael White - remaining equally convinced that it was God's hand.
A fully-scripted musical theater piece based on this material, with performers inhabiting roles or following a narrative, would probably work; Sanders' prologue summed up the appeals and hardships of a white pioneer's life while piquing the imagination with slightly archaic language and delivery, and that bit of acting and sharing of vocal parts during "Ice Mountains" brought the material to life in a different way than during the solo performances.
But true to its inspiration, Wilderness Plots
seemed like a barely dramatized version of a songwriters round, perhaps on a front porch somewhere (and the stage was full of rough-hewn chairs and blankets, looking somewhat like Connor Prairie if also a bit like Cracker Barrel). Each songwriter has his or her way with a piece, typically taking the lead while relying on others for backup vocals or additional instruments, interpreting the source material as faithfully or creatively as he or she saw fit. Sanders introduced nearly every piece with an excerpt from one of his stories, or the story in the whole; nearly always, the songwriters didn't improve upon Sanders' words, which economically evoke a formative 60-year period in Midwest life. But they did give Sanders' work, published in the '70s, a new audience and new interpretation; each songwriter worked up at least one memorable song, usually when they hewed most closely to the specifics of the original material.