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The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife - Hip-Hop Musical Theatre - Performances by Tim Barsky and the Everyday Ensemble

by Rachel Levin
December 31, 2004
San Francisco, CA

The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife - Hip-Hop Musical Theatre - Performances by Tim Barsky and the Everyday Ensemble

Dec. 1, 2004 - Jan. 2 2005 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco
Jan. 5, 2005 - Jan 16, 2005 at Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley

Rachel Levin
12/31/04

The thumping intonations of hip-hop beatboxing and the melancholy Eastern European melodies of klezmer flow together like two tributaries of the "bright river" in Tim Barsky's mythopoetic tale of modern afterlife. The river of the title is the barrier between the world of the living and the city of the dead. Yet instead of a paradise where earthly suffering evaporates, the afterlife has been "downsized," and the decayed city of the dead is a place where the problems of life continue to plague souls. Souls still have to pay rent. Crossing into the afterlife requires money, and if you don't have enough, then you're trapped in the bus station of Purgatory, where poor homeless souls sleep in tent camps - refugees of the world's evils. Purgatory overflows with the dead from 9/11, from the Iraq War, and cultural genocides of the 20th century.

Barsky literally breathes life into this fantastical context when he first steps on stage blowing into his flute backwards. Soon, he flips it right side up, but proceeds to beatbox - make vocal percussive rhythms - while simultaneously creating melody on his flute. He is soon joined by Jessica Ivry playing cello, Safa Shokrai on upright bass, and beatboxer/"voicestrumentalist" Kid Beyond (Andrew Chaikin). Barsky slips into his first character, Quick - a "fixer" who, like a noir private eye, works on assignment to hunt down souls for his clients and return them back to the living. Quick, like all of Barsky's characters, speaks in rhyme. He tells us that the city of the dead respirates: it breathes a heavy sigh, and the poetry of the city - rap - is that breath.

This juxtaposition between the old world strains of klezmer and the hip-hop pulse of the postmodern industrial city is an intoxicating mix. The story that unfolds is almost secondary to the visceral draw of the soundscape, the rhythm of Barsky's poetry, and the movement and dance with which he creates his characters. Each character has a unique melodic and kinesthetic theme.

Quick's mission is to find a girl named Calliope, a redhead with a brilliant smile who was plagued by cystic fibrosis in the world of the living. It was not her illness that led to her death; Calliope committed suicide when she learned that her love - a Yemeni Jew from South Berkeley - was killed in Iraq. This soldier with the bright face (we never learn his name) is the first person Quick seeks out in his journey to locate Calliope. He finds the penniless soldier in the tent city of Purgatory. The bright-faced young man stands in a hip-hop stance and talks in street slang as he personalizes the immigrant experience in America, the misnomer of our "volunteer army," and the soldiers who enlist thinking that the war is over yet face a brutally different reality when they arrive in Iraq.

The soldier gives Quick a lead: there was a raven that followed Calliope around all her life, and perhaps if he can find the raven, Calliope won't be far behind. What follows is the one of the most imaginative and sonically rich settings of the entire narrative. Quick travels to the Garden of Eden, which is now a ghetto, where the Tree of Life grows out of an abandoned lot. In the tree, Quick encounters the Conference of the Birds, a huge rave party that is rumored to happen only once every thousand years. The show's beatboxer, Kid Beyond, is truly spectacular in this episode as he mimics rave music and avian utterances entirely through his guttural vocalizations. The raven Quick seeks is here working for the King of the Birds as a reaper who followed Calliope all her life. In parrot-like squawks, the raven reports that Calliope is being held by a demon on the rooftop of the world. As he ends his tale, we get the best morsel of dance in the whole show: the flapping-wing dance of the raven.

Quick must tangle with the demon in order to rescue Calliope's soul, and this climactic scene is the choicest example of Barsky's ability to appropriate religious folklore into modern political allegory. The demon is one of the "husks" of the vessel that used to hold the unified divine light. According to Jewish mysticism, this light was scattered into sparks and must be gathered together again in order to bring about world peace and unity. The demon believes that hate is the only vessel that can now contain love, and the political implications are transparent when he thanks the world for "letting me into your gas tanks."

The final resolution of Quick's journey and Calliope's fate is not entirely satisfying. It is a fairytale ending that, while not inappropriate for a self-conscious fairytale, leaves the audience wondering how to truly grapple with the social issues Barsky illuminates beyond merely loving one another.

Perhaps the performance craves more dance than Barsky peppers in. Though there is a live breakdance showcase scheduled outside the theatre after the show, more movement within the narrative would give wider physical expression to the cadence and cacophony of the klezmer/hip-hop fusion. Though Barsky's storytelling style is reminiscent of Eastern-European Jewish "Wonder Tales" of the 17th-19th centuries, in which audience participation was a centerpiece, the sense that one is passively being told a "bedtime" story persists. Dance, especially in a piece as musically complex as this one, can invigorate the audience and impart a spirit of movement that elevates viewers from mere listeners to inspired social actors.


Safa Shokrai (bass), Tim Barsky, Jess Ivry (cello) and Andrew Chaikin (beatbox) in THE BRIGHT RIVER.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Barnett

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