The lights go down, and people begin emerging from the wings, draping themselves in robes and fabrics strewn about the stage. A resounding, low hum builds in little bursts of vowels, as if bubbling forth. As the shadowy figures assume their positions across the thrust stage, their chanting surges and breaks like waves upon a shore. And suddenly their wordless harmonies crescendo as one, and amidst this ethereal, astonishing texture of sounds, the River begins to tell its story.
Tamar of the River, a new musical by Marisa Michelson and Joshua H. Cohen, fits with Prospect Theater‘s mission to foster new musical theater in New York, “to connect theater’s present to its past – in order to build its future.” The Baruch Performing Arts Center’s top-notch facilities are home to this world premiere until October 20. Highly stylized and theatrical, yet primal with a mythical vibe, Tamar is a unique treat for the eyes and ears. It is the kind of production that signals a departure from predictable musical theater, mostly in its drawing from Middle Eastern, Asian, and pre-Western music. It’s a tonally innovative form of live storytelling with which this reviewer can – for the most part – get onboard.
Based vaguely on the Bible’s story of Tamar and Judah, the story introduces what its all-important, all-seeing River-chorus describes “a land divided into two warring sides.” Although the violence is initially implied rather than depicted, the stakes are sufficiently high by the time Tamar is called upon – dazzlingly – by the river to be a prophet of peace. Her journey to decipher the river’s messages and resist violence takes her deep into enemy territory, and ends with mixed results.
If the story sounds thin here, it’s because it is. Tamar of the River puts vocal and visual acrobatics above plot specificity, and it works, thanks to a seamless ensemble and an off-putting yet beautiful score. The cast’s tribal-chic aesthetic (Candida K. Nichols designed the costumes) places this play at a point somewhere between ancient Egypt and Biblical folklore. The two long-feuding communities call back somewhat to Romeo and Juliet, but I was more often reminded of Shakespeare’s other musings on war: Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Betrayal, sexual intrigue, and political scheming all make cameos in this play, although it mainly wants to address the notion that war can’t create peace. While the sudden spurts of violence indeed bring nothing but grief, the story’s conclusion proffers hope as pretty much the only solution. This is because our heroine, unexpectedly perhaps, fails in her mission of peace.
As Tamar, Margo Seibert (all doe-eyed seriousness) brings vocal prowess and grace to a role that is meant to anchor a wandering story. Her oscillation between jubilant clarity and frustrated doubt makes a case for Tamar of the River as a coming-of-age tale. Her character, like anyone forced to venture out and take charge, is buffeted at all sides by uncertainty, and to watch Seibert navigate that path is a treat.
But the play’s central figure, this seething, singing river, seems to have too much responsibility when it comes to the ebbs and flows of Tamar’s story. If, like her, we can’t be sure whether to trust this Greek chorus-qua-water god, then the audience is increasingly cut adrift. Without a clear-cut moral, a fable like this one suggests authorial indecision more than artistic license. For example, Tamar’s mother (the operatic Ako) appears in two scenes: one in which she encourages her daughter to listen to the river and bring their land peace, and one later in which she exalts her daughter’s return and insists they can ignore the war. Certainly the optimistic ending – in which Tamar confronts the river one last time and is essentially told, “You won’t see peace, but chill out, it’ll get here eventually” – muddies the waters, if you will.
Erik Lochtefeld, as the conflicted war-mongering patriarch Judah, embodies this ambiguity superbly. His arresting solo “In the Crossing” scrutinizes doubt and passion and the futility of free will in wartime. Vince B. Vincent brings a few welcome touches of comic relief as a faltering, unlikely hero named Er. He’s the Romeo to his Tybalt of a brother, Onan, played by Mike Longo with militaristic relish. Longo can switch between stoic majesty and reckless passion in a flick of his rather gorgeous eyelashes. His fiery passion is further inflamed by Brian Tovar’s spectacularly stark lighting. A simplistic scenic design by Brett J. Banakis relies on the moving set pieces that are this tireless ensemble. Particularly breathtaking is the moment in which Tamar, revolving like a music box figurine, is wrapped slowly by the cast in long sheets of orange fabric.
Director Daniel Goldstein’s greatest accomplishment here is surely his close collaboration with musical director (and conductor) Matt Aument and choreographer Chase Brock. Each vocal cord and muscle of this disciplined cast is put to use throughout Tamar (no small feat considering its hour and a half running length). Together these artists create something distinct and refreshingly bold – a compelling fluidity of sound and movement that has stayed afloat in my mind since witnessing it.
By Jack Smart