Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Bright River": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

This photo makes Tim Barsky and his crew look absolutely merry, but merry is not the word that comes to mind after seeing "The Bright River," the third incarnation of Barsky's inventive production piece that is subtitled "A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife."

"Grimly optimistic" would be better, or perhaps "bus station fatalistic." As the only spoken word performer in the piece, Barsky plays several characters, and each one is memorable -- and weird. His noir depiction of Quick the Fixer, the being in the black hat with the voice like a reflective Vito Corleone, who journeys across the bridge from life to death and back, is brilliant and we never tire of his entrances. But Quick is no more brilliant than the raven, who preaches while making bird calls (he was born in prison), and the raven's charge Calliope, the beautiful red-haired heroine (with cystic fibrosis), and her boyfriend with the big heart (killed in Iraq).

We run into these characters one at a time. Their stories advance the plot, but they are also performance pieces on their own, in conjunction with the excellent three piece rhythm section, in which explosive beat boxer Carlos Aguirre stands out. The music is front and center; in fact the presentation feels more like a jazz concert with spoken word than a play with music.

In the end, for this reviewer, this is where the bus needs a slight tune-up.

Not that the players aren't terrific -- Aguirre, Barsky on a collection of flutes, cellist Alex Kelly and percussionist Kevin Carnes each get to take extended and inspired solos, but Barsky's music is simplistic, most likely intentionally so. After awhile the ear tires of the beat boxer's rhythms and the band's repeated musical phrases and reliance on elctronics. Act Two feels a lot longer than it is. Act One is over in a delirious heartbeat, Act Two, like Quick the Fixer, can't quite get to the other side.

The reason is clear: Act One: more character development. Act Two: more music. This reviewer finds Barsky, in this piece, to be a more brilliant performer than composer.

This said: what a performance! Don't let the reviewer's musical niggles keep you from seeing this show. (We reviewers live in that bus station between life and death most of the time anyway. In fact, we sell gum and lottery tickets there.) The cast and production team have a nice long run to work things out and director Jessica Heidt will strike a balance. "The Bright River" is a breath of fresh air -- novel, innovative, and young: the youngest, hippest theater audience you're bound to see all year.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Bright River" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE, which is a good review, but not as good as it will be when they shorten Act Two and try to fit the music in more with the story. For example, the beat box-percussionist trade-eight solos were great to listen to but there was no reason for them. They took the audience completely out of Barsky's carefully crafted world of purgatory and bus stations and demons.

We do not want to exit that world. We want to stay in it and revel in it.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for this man's impossible task: to remember all the words. How does he do it? He can't be making it all up, can he? Tim Barsky, more than everything else, has a lot of heart, and is a great performer. He's worth traveling to see.

"The Bright River"
Brava Theater
2781 24th Street, San Francisco
Through Feb. 20

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