Riot at the Bedlam

When its raining interpretive dancers, a beach umbrella offers very little protection

When its raining interpretive dancers, a beach umbrella offers very little protection

Fort Wilson Riot

Few bands can summon the creative stamina required for a project like Idigaragua. Yet with their first full-length effort, local musical impresarios Fort Wilson Riot have fearlessly thrown down a jewel-encrusted, multi-patterned, Technicolor gauntlet. A nexus of dance, costume, puppetry, film, theater, concept album, and live rock 'n' roll, Idigaragua is perhaps the most ambitious and imaginative debut release in indie-rock history.

A five-act operatic suite, Idigaragua tells the story of a nameless American journalist swept up in a Homeric journey. The narrative begins in a foreign bar, and soon finds the ill-fated protagonist cast out to sea. There are pirate encounters and discoveries of isolated civilization. Ultimately, he finds himself lost in a maddening desert void, reliving the events of his journey through harrowing hallucinatory recapitulation. All the while, the narrative voice, a hovering bird, consistently coos her leitmotif, "Idigaragua, nadie me quiere," nobody likes me.

"It started off as a little song, a simple thing based on a short story by Paul Bowles called 'Tapiama,'" explains bassist Joe Goggins in his deep baritone voice.

In a roundtable-like discussion at a rented south Minneapolis church, the band spend their pre-rehearsal break laboring to explain how this one little song, begun back in 2003, blossomed into a full-on concept record and theatrical production.

"We've always liked to string our songs together," offers Mullis, the band's primary guitarist, who, like the majority of the band, also sings and plays a variety of other instruments.

Feeding off of their various points of inspiration—the works of Bowles, archetypical literary forms, and the experiences three of the four members had while traveling together in Guatemala—Fort Wilson Riot have woven an intricate tapestry. Each of Idigaragua's five acts is subdivided into songs, which are themselves sectioned into distinct parts and themes.

The music, sounding something like a collaboration between Modest Mouse, Beirut, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is as tumultuous and unpredictable as the story itself. Employing drastic shifts in voice and instrumentation, as well as extended stretches of prosaic recitative, the band makes good on virtually every opportunity to flush plot action out of the movements in the music.

While the music for Idigaragua has been in the works for years, the idea to bring the album to the stage for a fully realized theatrical production never entered into the equation until recording was completed last spring.

"At that point, we knew how long the album was going to be, and how crazy and involved it was. We knew for sure however we performed it live, we didn't want it to be a normal show," Mullis confesses.

"We knew we couldn't act it all out. We thought about putting sets up on the stage, but we needed more," chimes in frontwoman Amy Hager.

Enter director Jeremy Catterton, U of M/Guthrie Theater graduate, co-founder of the London based Collision Theater, and longtime friend of the band. Catterton moved back to Minneapolis from London just as the band hatched the idea to stage a theater show.

Although Catterton previously worked with Mullis and Goggins on Exit/No Exit, which combined theater and live music, he admits to having never worked on a project so focused on a live band.

One of the unique twists of Idigaragua's staged production is that while the band is playing live in costume at the back of the stage, symbiotic actors are dancing, lip-synching, and emoting for them up front.

"Ultimately, we're living out the music," Catterton claims. "The point of the performance is to flesh out the story."

Playing the lead role of the journalist, Garrett Fitzgerald is the live embodiment of the character voiced by Mullis. "The hope is that by me being onstage and adding a physical and visual component to it, that I can take that same intention and give it even more depth, breadth, and specificity," he explains with a spark of pride.

While Fitzgerald and the rest of the cast perform a full rehearsal (minus costumes, a few props, and one performer) Catterton's energy picks up with the music. He jumps out of his seat to dance with the actors, and conducts their movements like a full-bodied baton. During the fourth act, where the video segment takes place, Catterton rushes over to video director Kevin Campbell and begins rifling off ideas for how to synchronize the flickering still of an animated bird skeleton with the actors' movements.

"He just fucking died!" the energetic director later shouts, instructing Fitzgerald to ratchet up the shock and torment.

Seemingly as invested in the project as anyone in the band, Catterton realizes the one thing that makes the whole project work, both as a play and as an album, is commitment. And it's just as important for it to be there in the audience as it is for the crew. After all, this is an indie-rock show we're talking about here, not some big-budget Broadway production.

"We're really shooting for a childlike aesthetic," he says. "It's like, come play with us, enter this fantasy, this bottle is a ship if we say it is."

Residing within that little nutshell is the crux of the whole thing: As difficult and grandiose as Idigaragua is, all it takes to climb aboard is a little bit of imagination.

Fort Wilson Riot's Idigaragua opens on September 7 at the Bedlam Theater; 612.341.1038