Of bands and bonds

Stanford Live hosts the bittersweet song cycle 'Ghost Rings'

For playwright/director Tina Satter, a successful collaboration involves a generosity of spirit, an appreciation for the absurd and surreal, a shared sense of dark humor and a certain amount of intangible chemistry. The theatrical song cycle "Ghost Rings," created by Satter's New York-based group Half Straddle, is not only itself a collaboration but also celebrates creative partnerships both real and fictional in the form of an imaginary rock band.

The feminist, funny and fantastical show, which comes to Stanford Feb. 14-16, is a musical tale of the passionate connection between best friends and bandmates Samantha and Shawna, who share a cosmically close bond. So close, in fact, that Shawna "wills the universe to make her pregnant with Samantha's baby."

Their glitter-and-spandex bedazzled story is contrasted with memories of Satter's relationship with her own estranged, real-life sister, with whom Satter once shared childhood dreams of playing in a rock band and of their lives being forever intertwined.

These dual narratives are interwoven within the framework of a live pop-rock concert, with Satter playing drums on stage, alongside Chris Giarmo playing keyboards and Erin Markey and Kristen Sieh singing lead as Samantha and Shawna. They're joined in Satter's "special alt-world" by whimsical seal and deer puppets representing Samantha and Shawna's alter egos/inner selves/spirit animals.

"When we were younger we had imagined being in this rock band together," Satter said. "The show is a fractured container for this remembered band."

Calling the interludes she delivers about her sister "biographical pinpricks to fill out the tapestry of this play," Satter said she did not set out to write an autobiographical piece.

"For the nature of this show I wanted some elusiveness and mystery and poetics. I never intended to stand up and tell this one-woman show," she said. But as she continued exploring Samantha and Shawna's relationship, Satter's memories and feelings surrounding her once-close, now-severed ties to her sister couldn't help but surface.

"The main story of these two young women, this loaded friendship, wondering, 'Could we have our whole lives together?' dealing with this personal stuff was huge to be grappling with for me," Satter said. "I would just start writing stuff about my sister. I couldn't not write about it then," she said, especially after discussing it with co-creators Giarmo, who also serves as the project's musical director, and comedian/writer/musician Markey.

"I said, 'This is where I'm heading with this; let's start playing with it and let's see,'" she said. "They, being friends of mine, also knew there were darker roots to some of that stuff."

Collaborators for many years, Giarmo and Markey composed the music (accompanying Satter's lyrics) as well as performing in the "Ghost Rings" cast.

"I really tried to physically and vocally own her lyrics as my own point of view," Markey told the Weekly in an email interview. "The goal for me was full sonic embodiment of the show's aesthetic values. That's what we all wanted so there was a lot of permission there for that."

The harmony and power-ballad-rich music of "Ghost Rings" comes with a variety of influences, from Simon and Garfunkel to Bikini Kill to Enya.

"I'm always influenced by '90s country, '90s R&B and the Indigo Girls. I am complicatedly very influenced by R. Kelly's music, but who isn't?" Markey said.

Originally, Satter was not planning on performing in "Ghost Rings," thinking that Sieh and Markey would recite the interludes about her sister.

"Erin said, 'I think you need to try saying it, Tina,'" Satter recalled. "And yep, that's what makes sense; what feels artistically correct."

The show also gave Satter the challenging opportunity to become something new, at the suggestion of Giarmo: a rock drummer.

"Chris had this idea that I should be in the band. I am not a drummer at all, I learned very specifically to do this. I can basically drum the songs we had in the show," she said. "It felt very vulnerable because I'm not normally a performer in my work and I never write that explicitly about personal stuff in my shows. Usually the drummer is the beat of the show but I was the least talented musician," she said, laughing. "I had to rely back on these other incredibly talented musicians."

A mix of childhood fantasy and the melancholy nostalgia of adulthood, "Ghost Rings" seems likely to resonate with anyone who has experienced the close bond between best friends, between sisters or between artistic collaborators (or perhaps all three), and the deeply felt loss if and when that bond is weakened.

"Almost all my plays are about young women having shared codes ... sisters have that, theater makers have that," Satter mused. "A band totally has that -- making music together, singing together, finding each other in that live space, it's such an amazing connection."

What: "Ghost Rings."

Where: Bing Studio, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford.

When: Thursday, Feb. 14, Wednesday, Feb. 15 and Sat., Feb. 16 at 8 p.m.

Cost: $35-$45.

Info: Go to Stanford Live.

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