It may be flippant to say that if you've seen one transcendental journey into kabbalistic beatbox noir you've seen them all, but it's also very likely accurate. After all, how many can there be? But if Tim Barsky's The Bright River is any indication, the more the merrier.
An Epic Arts production hosted by Transparent Theater, The Bright River isn't a play so much as an exercise in musical storytelling. It's a shaggy-dog descent into the afterlife propelled by the driving rhythms of Everyday Theatre, which describes itself as "a group of musicians drawn from the underground hip-hop and klezmer communities." The theme of community is as strong in the execution as it is in the text. The show features Danielle Jatzlow's photographs of members of the Vowel Movement beatbox community in the theater entrance, and guest beatboxers entertain the crowd after the show. (Beatboxing, in case you're largely unaware of hip-hop, is the often-spluttery art of vocal percussion, mimicking drums, turntables, and the like with one's mouth.) Although the show had a sold-out three-day run this fall, there were maybe thirty people in the former South Berkeley church's stacked pews on the second night of its recent run, so the crowd was prepped to be really loud to compensate for the absence of a much larger audience.
Barsky walks slowly onto the instrument-strewn stage, monkish in his hoodie, solemnly playing a flute. But when he takes his seat on the stage, he starts beatboxing and playing the flute at the same time. While he is pulling off this impressive feat, his fellow performers gradually enter, Jessica Ivry joining in on cello, Shree Shyam strapping on a bass behind his synths, and Andrew Chaikin taking over beatbox duties.
Our writer and performer posits an afterlife that's a mirror image of contemporary America, with all its injustices intact. His hero Quick's mission is to find Calliope, a girl who got a bum rap, living with cystic fibrosis only to kill herself after her boyfriend died in Bush II's Gulf War II. As the soldier explains when Quick finds him, "They sent me away to the pillage and the sack. They sent us away to Iraq." This kid with "a face as bright as a copper table" has wound up in "the bus station called Purgatory" where there is a "tent city of the homeless, the well of lost souls." To be sure, Barsky has a political point to make here. The soon-to-be soldier grew up fast in South Berkeley, working three jobs to raise his siblings after his Yemeni Jewish mother died of a heroin overdose. It's "like I'd been born to serve coffee in somebody else's dream," the soldier chants while telling the story of his death.
It's in moments like this that Barsky's language is at its best. Throughout the show, he alternates between hard-boiled prose, fast-paced poetic patter, and dreamy chants, using different rhythms and rhymes for different characters. The prosaic elements help ground the poetry in the real world, but this story is only about the real world in a secondary, sidelong way, and its success rests not on grounding but on being swept away. The music sweeps us away throughout, and it's pure magic when Barsky's words take flight as well. The noir elements don't really add much -- just an opportunity for Barsky to say standard-issue gumshoe lines like "But I had a job to do" that may as well go unsaid. They're just borrowed lines, as is Barsky's Twilight Zone-inspired "imagine if you will" intro. A private detective is a tempting modern character type to send on a spiritual quest, being a seeker by definition, but Quick isn't exactly a detective. "I'm a fixer, a resurrectionist, a missing-persons specialist," Barsky intones in his rapid-fire rhythm. "I bring the dead back to life." The main thing Quick has in common with your average dime-store gumshoe is that he doesn't seem to like his job all that much. And he has little to do in the way of detecting: Everyone he meets is incredibly cooperative, just waiting for an opportunity to tell him their stories. Really he's a sort of Dante, just providing an excuse for us to bus through the beyond. The Bright River is parenthetically subtitled "A Mass-Transit Tour of the Afterlife," and Quick points out that his public transit karma is infallible. But what we're supposed to take from the fact that he always catches his bus isn't clear. That said, his superpower of making the trains run on time is a cute detail, and very convenient in terms of hustling along his quest to find his heroine.
Calliope, meanwhile, is so alive and inspiring that everyone seems to fall in love with her, although her general sublimeness is a had-to-be-there proposition, as in the case of many fairy-tale accounts of amazing and beautiful heroines. The picture Barsky creates isn't quite enough to launch a thousand ships, but we take his word for it that she is great enough to set all this in motion because we're invested in the notion.
Most confusingly, Quick repeatedly switches his narrative voice from first person to third person for no detectable reason. Sometimes the first-person passages begin with "Quick said," implying that he is using the past tense to tell the story of what he's doing even as he is doing it. Or something; like I said, it's confusing. Of course, this is a transcendental journey, and you don't really expect transcendental journeys to make a hell of a lot of sense. After all, it's not details such as these that make the story work as well as it does.
In the end, it's not even the story that makes the story work. Individual parts may seem facile or heavy-handed, but judging the whole by these component parts feels like announcing you don't like cake after tasting some of the flour -- or, more aptly, judging a pop song solely on the content of its lyrics. The poetry, pathos, and beat suck you in, and the music is fantastic. Ivry's commanding cello sets the mood for Chaikin's omnipresent beats and Barsky's occasional flute, abetted by Shyam on bass, percussion, marimba, and synth. It's a lush, propulsive, and at times aching sound, and it keeps you right there with Barsky throughout, without a thought of straying from the path. And beatboxer Chaikin, who also goes by the handle Kid Beyond, is just amazing. To capture a Conference of the Birds, he evokes the echo of flapping wings, thundering footsteps, kazoo-like chatter, and the squawk of a scratched record in an increasingly frenzied tour de force of solo beatboxing.
The Bright River soars on style and energy, rhythm and repetition, and to a certain extent on its heart. It helps, too, that Barsky is perfectly willing to poke fun at himself. After flubbing a line, he says Calliope has "a smile to make you forget every rehearsed line you've ever learned." When the usual beautiful reunion at the end rolls around, he says, "And it was just like a movie, but better, because it was live, and it was underground, and it was independent theater."
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