The Bright River is the second Jewish hip-hop production I've seen in the last two months. The first was Stateless, the Dan Wolf–Tommy Shepherd collaboration that had its world premiere at the Jewish Theatre San Francisco in October. Chloe Veltman reviewed that show in these pages, finding that it lacked a "sense of balance between the disparate cultures it seeks to mesh." I don't completely disagree with her, but I think I enjoyed Stateless more than she did. I also think that, in comparison to The Bright River, Stateless is a model of balance and restraint.
As you might expect, the shows have similar origins, both owing their development in large part to the Jewish Theatre San Francisco. In 2004, writer and performer Tim Barsky brought the original version of The Bright River to the Jewish Theatre's stage, where it ran for months to packed houses. Though I didn't see the show in its first incarnation, I assume that it was popular in part because of its timeliness: The Bright River is, above all, an imaginative exploration of the anxieties many Bay Area audiences would have felt five or six years ago — namely, that the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake and that President George W. Bush might hang around for another four years.
Many San Francisco progressives are in a very different state of mind in 2010. With the grand promises of Barack Obama's presidential campaign resolving into mundane political reality, it's now difficult to engage liberals in any political discussion that doesn't end in a sigh of resignation. That's presumably why Barsky decided to revisit The Bright River, refashioning it in an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist once again. This time, though, it just doesn't work.
The show's press materials describe it as "a hip-hop retelling of Dante's Inferno," but it would be more accurate to say that it's a hip-hop fantasia suggested by The Inferno's opening stanza. At the beginning of the play, we find ourselves in a "dark wood wandering," and that's basically where the references to Dante end — from then on out, the play is a mishmash of classical mythology, Jewish folklore, and the jeremiads of Allen Ginsberg.
The story concerns a poor kid from South Berkeley who falls in love with a rich girl from North Berkeley. (Only in the Bay Area would the phrase "wrong side of the tracks" mean that you're closer to Berkeley Bowl than to Chez Panisse.) The kid goes off to war in Iraq and dies in an ambush; his girlfriend tries to follow him by committing suicide. Yet the lovers find that "everything in death is as messed up as it is in life," with the world's inadequacies and inequalities extended to the underworld. Even when you're dead, you still pay rent, and you're stuck with a Muni system that's literally from hell.
Barsky plays every role, including the show's narrator, a "fixer" named Quick. (A fixer is someone who acts as a local guide for journalists in volatile parts of the world.) He's backed by a drummer (Kevin Carnes), a cellist (Alex Kelly), and a brilliant beatboxer (Carlos Aguirre), with Barsky himself occasionally playing the flute. The music is by far the most effective part of the show; I would gladly pay to see these four perform without the benefit of Barsky's overwrought narration.
But narrate he does. And narrate. And narrate. The Bright River is less a full production than a staged reading accompanied by music. It's preachy even by the standards of political theater, and it's self-congratulatory even for San Francisco. Barsky speaks only to people who already agree with him. He doesn't confront. Yes, he takes swipes at Obama, including a few references to the slipperiness of "hope" and "change." But the play seems to be lodged firmly in the middle of the last decade, hinging all of its ideas on what we thought we knew in 2005.
On the night I attended, the production had serious sound issues throughout the first act, preventing Barsky from moving freely across Melpomene Katakalos' gorgeous junkyard set. But even in the second act, when the sound had mostly cleared up and he could roam as he liked, the show still felt static. That's possibly because he could use a choreographer. Or it may be because the director, Jessica Heidt, indulges him far more than is necessary or wise, missing the opportunity to stage his rambling narrative as a series of tightly focused vignettes.
As the play draws to a close, Barsky retreats from allegory to abstraction, resolving his characters' fates with some of the gauziest prose this side of a Twilight novel. For instance, his hero and heroine engage in "a kiss so strong it stopped the war, a kiss so strong it stopped death, a kiss so strong it stopped time, if only for a moment." This will strike some as terribly beautiful or terribly deep. For me, though, it's just terribly vague, and it's a perfect example of what happens when political theater gets too eager to please the audiences who already agree with its basic premises. Here's a handy rule of thumb: If you start considering the possibility of suspending global conflicts with a kiss, then it's time to put down the joint and spend a weekend as far away from San Francisco as you can get.