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The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife

Beatboxing in the Afterlife

Everyone loves hell. Or at least, everyone is fascinated by hell. Virgil, Dante, Milton, Sartre; Hell has provided rich fodder for numerous creative minds, each of which has built upon its predecessors in constructing ever more elaborate (or at least bizarre) versions of the world of the damned.

Tim Barsky’s The Bright River is yet another in a long line of these oddly mesmerizing and imaginative works, borrowing elements from Dante, Greek mythology, and Jewish theater, as well as modern hip-hop, and spoken-word poetry to create an innovative and interesting production.

The Bright River is the story of Quick, a resident of the underworld working as a “fixer” — one who brings the dead back to the world of the living. Quick is charged with returning a recently dead woman named Calliope to her family, but she proves difficult to track down. The play follows Quick as he moves between hell and purgatory, sleuthing his way through tenements and bus stations, learning about love, death, and Calliope along the way.

The play gets major marks for a few things, and the music is at the top of the list. The play essentially has a live soundtrack accompanying it, original music composed and performed by Tim Barsky (flute), Kevin Carnes (percussion and keyboards), Alex Kelly (cello), and Carlos Aguirre (human beatbox). Let me say that without the parentheses: human beatbox. Not since the Fat Boys and Sgt. Jones of the Police Academy movies have I heard the human mouth make such sounds. Beatboxing is perhaps one of the most underrated of musical tools; Aguirre shows the audience what it can really do to lead rhythms and tell stories through sound effects, putting Bobby McFerrin to shame.

Cellist Alex Kelly also gets some really unusual and fantastic sounds out of his cello, an instrument usually relegated to the dark corners of the classical orchestra. In addition to some classical bowing and plucking, Kelly pulls out bluesy riffs and Hendrix guitar screams, sometimes playing his cello like a stand-up bass, at other times layering its range of sounds to create haunting melodies. And it totally works. Throw in Barsky’s fluteboxing (beatboxing with a flute, of course) and you get a refreshing mix of rock, blues, and hip-hop played on the instruments one would least expect for such genres.

Also on the plus side is the poetic quality of the script. Barsky has written what essentially amounts to an epic poem that, translated into 21st century artistic styles, results in an edgy, fast-paced spoken word performance. The language and imagery employed create wonderfully rich and lyrical lines, lending a flowing and even musical quality to the lengthy monologues. As Barsky is both narrator and actor of all parts, this linguistic beauty provides a captivating quality that will keep audiences’ attention on the story despite the essentially unchanging view.

While the musical and poetic qualities of The Bright River are outstanding in most instances, Barsky’s physical portrayals of each of his characters is less compelling. He delivers the story with an energy and passion that grabs the audience, but he does not seem to fully inhabit his characters physically. The voice changes, the language and content of the lines indicate distinct personalities, yet Barsky’s mannerisms and body language are uniformly twitchy and frenetic, causing a sense of anxiety and exhaustion even when the content of his monologue is just the opposite. This mania works perfectly for the “bright-faced soldier” (Calliope’s dead love), a young man describing his expectations and experiences of the war in Iraq, even his own death, but for the kind, devoted Calliope and the disillusioned Quick, it detracts from their distinctiveness and three-dimensionality.

The Bright River is ultimately a linguistically and musically enthralling work that presents thought-provoking meditations on life, death, love, war, and violence.

Now through February 27th
Tickets: $17-$35