Born out of rage and frustration, Tim Barsky's The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife takes a very old fable and hews it to current politics. The story is familiar. It begins with a star-crossed romance. The girl is a sweet North Berkeley do-gooder with cystic fibrosis. The boy is a second-generation Jewish immigrant from Yemen, who grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of South Berkeley. Improbably, they fall in love. Then he goes off to serve in Iraq, gets stoned (constantly), gets shot in the head, and winds up in purgatory — rather, "a bus station called purgatory," which is Barsky's updated version of Dante's Inferno. The symbolism gets a little crude, particularly with the introduction of "a fixer named Quick," and a raven who serves as the Grim Reaper's emissary. But the concept and execution are terrific.
Trained in religious studies and Hassidic folklore, Barsky is a storyteller first and foremost. He studied Islamic and Judaic traditions at Brown University, honed his flute skills at Berklee School of Music, then became a busker in Dublin, Ireland. Barsky is now a well-known practitioner of a form he calls "urban circus arts," essentially a pastiche of his various obsessions. Bright River supplements its epic storyline with beatboxing, electronics, and live instrumentation. Barsky tells the entire story in spoken-word cadence, busting a few Bob Fosse dance moves, and frequently appealing for audience participation. He required us to visualize what's happening without any actors. He seduces us with rhymed stanzas and tawdry metaphors — including one about a soldier "whose face is bright as a river." Yet, it's his band — which includes celloist Alex Kelly, drummer Kevin Carnes, vocal percussionist Carlos Aguirre (aka Infinite), along with Barksy on flute — that gives the story its shape.
In fact, Bright River is more a soundscape in need of narrative than the other way around. The play first premiered at Traveling Jewish Theater in 2004, pitching itself as both a beat-box opera and knee-jerk response to the war. It had a different lineup at that point, with bassist Safa Shokrai, Jessica Ivry (the current music director) on cello, and Andrew Chaikin (aka Kid Beyond) on beatbox. The new band debuted at Climate Theater last December. Bright River's current iteration, directed by Jessica Heidt, will run through February 20 at San Francisco's Brava Theater. It's a full-on theatrical production with lighting design and space for Barsky to run around.
At the opening, he emerges in a patched jacket and skater shoes, flute in hand. Behind him lies a huge, junkyard set piece designed by Melpomene Katakalos. It provides an idea of what the Inferno might look like had it been created in 2010: scrap metal, chicken wire, corrugated siding, and scavenged objects. Barsky picks up the flute and starts beatboxing into it — vocalizing a drum pattern while blowing into the instrument. Barsky's flute tones — like his speaking voice — are thick, harsh, and guttural. Compared to most woodwind players, he's gruff and imperfect. But such textures find favor with hip-hop listeners. They also blend into the industrial landscape.
Barsky gets a loop going as the other musicians emerge. Carnes, who is most famous for drumming in the acid jazz trio Broun Fellinis, has a trap set and a whole arsenal of doodads. He drums a sheet of rusted metal, hits one stick with the other, and adds a few programmed beats. As Barsky launches into his second monologue — which tells the backstory of how a progressively minded kid from South Berkeley grew up to be a soldier — Carnes and Aguirre clap a son clave rhythm in sync. Kelly comes in with pizzicato cello, which sounds like the melodic layer of a hip-hop bassline. They render Barsky's story into an epic rap song. Aguirre — who gets his major star turn here — uses his mouth not only for drum patterns, but practically all the sound effects in the play: a telephone ringing, the flick of a lighter, a scuffling match between birds. At one point, he sings a sample from John Legend's "Green Light."
Where Bright River really succeeds is its mix of musical traditions: classical strings with fancy looping systems (Kelly uses several pedals to create his own loops, and play over them), a jazz drummer trading fours with a beatboxer, samples colliding with structured improvisation. It's something that's easy to envision but hard to pull off, especially if you want to keep your music accessible to the untrained ear. But these cats are up to the challenge. The writing, unfortunately, is where Bright River loses its luster. There's only so much you can achieve by tacking an anti-war screed onto an old religious allegory. The bus metaphors seem thrown in, rather than fully developed, and the asides about Iraq War policy seem like, well, asides. Sometimes Barsky allows the music to interrupt or blur out his monologues. In past interviews he's said he favors storytelling over writing, which seems like an accurate characterization. After all, the page is a kind of purgatory.