The name Tim Barsky is fast becoming enough, in Bay Area theatrical circles, to send sparks flying. His last show with his company Everyday Theatre, The Bright River, received the adulation of audiences and critics and ran for a mammoth 24 weeks. An earlier production, As If in Sleep, played to similar acclaim. Glowing resume aside, Barsky possesses such an unusual skill-set there can't be too many combination Jewish storyteller/beatbox flutists out there that just a description of it is likely to inspire anyone with a taste for the offbeat to sample his work.
As you can imagine, I was pretty fired up to witness the artist's new project, Dreaming in a Firestorm. Describing the production as "a fairy-tale story of a musician walking home from a gig through a San Francisco that is part dream and part disaster," the press release promised a tantalizing combination of "beatbox, a live soundtrack, hip-hop theater, juggling, and traditional Jewish folklore." So why did I leave Barsky's warmhearted, multidexterous solo performance feeling like I'd been watching a rehearsal, wondering if I could write a review that would amount to more than a set of notes, like those a director might give an actor?
It's not as if Dreaming in a Firestorm lacks moments of beauty and insight. The show's haunting, densely textured beat-box and flute codas (Barksy produces noises from his bass flute that you wouldn't think were possible) keep us traveling along beside the narrative's protagonist as he describes his encounters with a motley assortment of characters: a paramedic-turned-sound engineer from Boston, a Lebanese house-music DJ. Sitting on an almost-bare stage with his instrument, some audio equipment, and a couple of microphones, wearing scruffy black pants, sneakers, a white T-shirt, red suspenders, and a trilby hat, Barsky cuts a benign, Buddhalike figure. But the gravelly aggressiveness of his rhythms undercuts the sweetness of his melodies. His music and the relaxed-rap intonations of his poetry have the curious effect of making the listener feel empty and whole at the same time; the consuming sounds reverberate around your head, yet leave you wanting more.
Unfortunately, the mesmerizing soundscape isn't enough to sustain a rambling and largely incoherent narrative: In fact, I've rarely had so much trouble following a story. At the start, I was under the impression that Barsky was the protagonist. Eventually I realized that the show's narrator wasn't the performer himself, but a character called Open the Door (though why he has this title remains lost on me). The other individuals as far as I could tell were creations of this fictitious alter ego. Banter about a fire in the apartment of a girl named Rachel (whose relationship to the narrator I never quite established), an ash storm, a melted cellphone, and some ravens left me thoroughly confused. Things briefly came into focus during an arresting scene in which the Boston sound engineer describes giving an unconscious girl a tracheotomy in a club bathroom, but went astray again in one involving a bunch of Jewish mice.
Given that much of the show takes place in a dream state, I certainly don't expect all the pieces to add up from a logical perspective. But they should at least make narrative sense. The problem might stem from the fact that Firestorm's different personas lack definition. Barsky uses the slightest of costume changes (substituting a red beanie for a white one, for example) to denote a character change, but it's often difficult to tell where one scene ends, when the next begins, and whether we're being addressed by the performer, the narrator, or some other individual. Another issue is Barsky's attempt to interject Homer's Iliad into his urban journey. While, by all accounts, the artist's take on Dante's Inferno in The Bright River was brilliantly conceived, allusions to the likes of Scylla and Charybdis in this work clash awkwardly with contemporary references to the 1991 Oakland firestorm and the restrooms at the Endup.
The show feels underrehearsed, but that's not so much a point of criticism as an unavoidable reality in the nonprofit theater world. My main difficulty with Firestorm is that it isn't even a real production at this point. Though I was led to believe that I would be seeing a finished performance, the experience was more like viewing a workshop presentation of a bunch of amorphous ideas and motifs that have a long way to go before becoming an articulate and reviewable whole.
Next January, Everyday Theatre will premiere an ensemble version of Dreaming in a Firestorm featuring cast members from The Bright River. With further development, Barsky and his collaborators should turn the work's spark into quite a blaze. For now, though, I'm stuck scraping two sticks together in the rain.