It’s not clear which is more impressive, the words that come out of Tim Barsky’s mouth or the sounds that emerge from the throat of his cohort Kid Beyond.
This is how you experience “The Bright River,” the theater piece by Barsky and the Everyday Ensemble currently playing in San Francisco. Half the time you’re engrossed in the remarkable story laid out before you; the rest of the time you are utterly transfixed by the virtuosic beatboxing of Barsky and Kid Beyond.
To understand the dazzle of Traveling Jewish Theatre’s “Bright River,” you have to know what beatboxing is. It’s a hip-hop art form that uses the mouth to make an astonishing set of percussive sounds. Mostly it resembles drums, the electronic beats of rap and dance music. But the genre is famous for its ability to mimic just about anything you can hear. Think a more urban, gritty Bobby McFerrin.
Barsky and Kid Beyond (aka Andrew Chaikin) are about as good as is gets for beatboxing. The catch is that Barsky doesn’t just do this with his mouth: He also does it with the flute, making absolutely unique jazzy music.
All of this technique is harnessed to tell a captivating and intimate story. The stage is bare except for the musicians (cello, stand-up bass and Kid Beyond with his mouth), and Barsky standing up and walking around, gesticulating and storytelling. He portrays his cast of characters simply by putting on knit wool caps of different colors. The emptiness of the stage and the simplicity of the storytelling create a simultaneously personal and collective theatrical experience. You use your imagination to fill in the space left by the transparent presentation, but also engage in audience participation, calling out when Barsky asks for your help.
The narrative takes place in the city of the dead, between the afterlife and life on earth. A “fixer” named Quick who brings the living to the land of the dead and the dead back to the land of the living has to find the living spirit of a beautiful young resident of Berkeley named Calliope. Her soul is stolen by a demon from kabbalistic mythology after she learns of the death of her lover, a young Yemeni American Jew who dies in the Iraq war as a serviceman in the U.S. Army.
There’s also a raven whose job it is to spread death, but who befriends Calliope before she forfeits her own life to the bird.
Sound confusing? It’s not. The way Barsky tells the story with his friendly, bearlike presence, you feel like you’re around a campfire with some kind of Chassidic storyteller of yesteryear. Except the tale is accompanied by a sharp musical ensemble propelled by Kid Beyond’s mouth music, a series of rhythms that are over-the-top yet beautiful. Somehow the sweet melancholy of the cello and the classic jazz of the stand-up bass make perfect sense with Kid Beyond’s cartoony and gritty creations.
Kid Beyond also uses his vocal talents to simulate a dance club for divine birds, the screams of a ferocious demon and the chaos of a battle in Fallujah. It’s hard to overstate the originality of Kid Beyond’s role in the production.
There are moments when the uniqueness of Kid Beyond’s contributions threaten to overshadow the rest of the show, but it is a credit to Barsky’s own abilities that he can channel the showmanship of Kid Beyond and his own almost distractingly competent flute-playing into a cohesive whole with his epic story.
Barsky studied with a well-known traditional Jewish storyteller, and those skills are clearly on display the entire time. His smile, glowing bald head and satyr-like beard practically radiate emotions, and he succeeds in making the audience feel like he is making personal contact with each individual. He also improvised bits of the show, throwing in topical references and even turning a technical malfunction into a seamless flow with the rest of the evening.
Walking out of the theater, audience members were heard to mutter, “those people should be famous.” The show felt like an event, an innovation in Jewish performance that will receive national attention. Whether “The Bright River” does receive that kind of wide acclaim, the Bay Area should feel lucky to have access to this quality of entertainment.
“The Bright River” runs through Jan. 1 at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida St., S.F. Tickets: $12 to $35. The show runs Jan. 5-16 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley. Information: (415) 285-8080 or www.atjt.com.