In the hip-hop play “The Bright River,” the dead are louder than the living, but their society is just as unfair. This contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno is a musical journey through the Underworld, where Purgatory is a bus stop for people who can’t afford tickets.
“Inferno is the ‘Bladerunner’ of the Renaissance,” said Tim Barsky, writer and star of “The Bright River.” He hopes his play is both as timely and as universal.
“At the beginning of this decade we watched the system of democracy collapse in America, and watched everything spin out of control. We each live out the impact on a small stage… in trains, buses, and apartments. I wanted to tell a fairytale about that world, to make it large,” Barsky says.
With endless energy, Barsky narrates and plays all four characters in the show. To begin, he steps onstage and bursts into a song of beat-box pops and flute notes.
“Imagine the world to come as out of balance as the current one,” Barsky says.
“Even the dead are paying rent,” he says as raspy-voiced Quick, a diabolical character who invites the audience to the Land of the Dead.
In a “combination of the fantastic and the real,” Barsky also plays a young soldier from South Berkeley who dies in Iraq, the girl –from North Berkeley– whom he loves, and an imprisoned talking raven.
The other three musicians make the show’s heartbeat. Carlos Aguirre beat-boxes; Kevin Carnes plays drums and percussion; Alex Kelly is on the cello.
“The non-verbal communication plays three roles: as a soundtrack; as sound-scape, like sounds of cabs or rain; and as story, when the music takes the lead in the narrative and lets people’s minds wander. It can play more than one of these roles at the same time,” Barsky explains.
In his solo beat box, Aguirre begins making bird sounds and soon sings the pop lyrics, “I’m ready to go right now.” The audience screams for more.
Later, in a heightened moment of sadness, Barsky steps offstage and cellist Kelly takes over.
“When you have a cellist solo and a clear narrative drive, it allows people to use their imagination. It creates a feeling of death and lets the experience be individual,” says Jessica Heidt, director of the play.
“In live theater you can have structured improvisation. We have 13 or 14 instruments played by four people,” says Barsky.
Barsky, who apprenticed with a Chasidic folklorist and wrote several plays before “The Bright River,” calls the show a mixture of hip-hop and Jewish folklore.
“The Bay Area is a huge juncture of beat boxing and Jewish theater…I’m a Jewish kid from the suburbs. You can ask, ‘what does it mean to be a Jewish folklorist in the hip-hop world? That’s the heart of the [Jewish folklore] tradition—it speaks to where we are,” he says.
“I hope this show empowers people to feel better, and to make better decisions. The power’s through the people. Life will kick you down every day,” says Barsky.
“The Bright River” is now playing at the Brava Theater on 24th street and York and runs until Feb. 20.