Saturday, January 16, 2010

Straight To Hell

As we all know, a huge literature of morality fables exists to fuel the fantasies of those who actually believe that heaven and hell exist. As a result, people can cite numerous references on what those two places look like.

But what about the O'Hare of the spiritual world -- that curious unworldly limbo status where a person's soul waits to enter heaven or hell? Plenty of jokes exist about people waiting to get into heaven. Movies, plays, and operas have all given us some ideas about what happens when someone goes to hell.

But what about the holding zone? What about that strange location where a soul must wander aimlessly until it can rest in peace? Or where it is given a chance to decide whether to move on to heaven, to hell, or go back to earth to take care of some unfinished business?

Whether one traffics in zombies lurching across the countryside, Avatars trying to juice up their batteries so they can become full-fledged members of the Na'vi, or a sleeping beauty hoping to be awakened from a coma by a kiss from Prince Charming, there's a curious state of half life where the body or soul remains undefined.
  • Alive or dead?
  • Dead or undead?
  • Frozen in time or cryogenically reborn?
For some people, life on earth feels worse than hell itself. All one needs to do is look at the situation on the ground in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to get some idea of how awful things can be in the wake of a natural disaster.

Two recently seen dramas highlight the hell that is limbo (as opposed to Limbaugh). The creator of each drama is deeply involved in making music. One works with a Japanese rock band, the other is a talented hip hop artist. Each drama introduces the audience to wandering souls who must try to complete some personal business in order for someone else's soul to finally pass to the next step (whether that step involves rebirth, reincarnation, or another form of spiritual rescue).

* * * * * * *
One of the more bizarre films scheduled to be shown at the upcoming San Francisco Indie Film Fest is Toshiaki Toyoda's rather scruffy effort entitled The Blood of Rebirth. A curiously unsatisfying piece inspired by the mythical Japanese story of Oguri Hangan, The Blood of Rebirth is a cheap and dirty tale of resurrection and revenge. While gay men with ball fetishes might find Toyoda's heavily tattooed villain inspiring, this movie could try anyone's patience.

Set during Japan's feudal era, The Blood of Rebirth introduces the audience to a sadistic warlord (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who can't stop complaining about his painfully swollen testicles. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that he is obviously suffering from some kind of venereal disease. His very macho solution, of course, has been to decapitate all of the women he has screwed (with the exception of his latest conquest) so that they can't make him more miserable than he already is.

Cut to a scene in which live fish are being held down on a chopping block and decapitated, with the audience left to watch each fish's body as it reflexively writhes and spasms after being severed from the fish's brain. The primitive warlord's chef waits until each fish's spasms slow down so that he can chop the rest of its body into large pieces that will be dumped into a boiling cauldron.

Enter the renowned masseur who has been brought to the warlord to help ease his pain. Although the warlord takes a liking to the masseur, Oguri prefers to remain a free agent -- a bad career move which quickly leads to his murder.

Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Tatsuya Nakamura

Complications ensue. Before he was slaughtered, Oguri and Princess Terute (Mayuu Kusakari) had exchanged deep glances. Despite the fact that her lord thinks the large tattoo on her face makes her uglier than sin, Terute looked just fine to Oguri.

But now he's dead. Or is he?

Cut to a scene in which Oguri meets an unearthly figure who is sitting in a cave and eating watermelon. This man struggles to get Oguri to make up his fucking mind about whether he wants to go to heaven or hell (the script is pathetic), but Oguri has unfinished business back on earth. Terute is waiting for him with that strange tattoo on her face. So he decides to go back down to what the spirit guide describes as a place "worse than hell."

Following Oguri's murder, a roving peddler (Hirofumi Arai), had sold the testicle-obsessed warlord the nose of a Tengu (or Japanese demon), which Terute had stolen. Shortly after Oguri returns to earth as a hungry ghost, he is noticed by a female dwarf with a bad attitude. A great deal of time is spent dragging Oguri's now paraplegic body through the forest.

Oguri (Tatsuya Nakamura) and Terute (Mayuu Kusakari)

Oguri eventually meets up with Terute (who takes over the responsibility of dragging his tired ass around rural Japan). Meanwhile, the warlord and peddler are hot on Terute's trail. After Oguri drags himself out onto a pier and manages to flop his crippled body into a rowboat, Terute comes running after him -- only to be brutally slain in the river by the angry warlord and the peddler.

Oguri then floats down the river in a rowboat until he comes to the the magical spring of rebirth (which looks like a hot spring filled with watery tomato juice). He climbs over its rocky border into the hot water, sinks to the bottom, and is reborn. The audience then gets to see Oguri splashing around in the water like a teenager having a angry tantrum.

Eventually, Oguri makes his way back to the warlord's cave, challenges He Who Has Blue Balls to take a whiff of the potent medicine he is boiling in a cauldron, decapitates the warlord, and then decapitates himself. The two men's heads are then seen swimming around in the boiling, bloody water as they do battle (and possibly perform a double decapitated same-sex kiss) with the help of some cheesy CGI scripting. Here's the back story you need to know about the making of The Blood of Revenge:
  • On August 24, 2005, Tashioki Toyoda was arrested and convicted on drug charges that resulted in a three-year suspended sentence. As a result, his filmmaking career nearly went down the drain.
  • The Blood of Rebirth was made on a minimal budget with help from his friends.
  • Toyoda has produced records for Twin Tail ((a guitar/violin/drum rock group) while recording the visuals used during the trio's live performances.
  • The actor portraying Oguri (Tatsuya Nakamura) is also the drummer for Twin Tail.
  • The score for The Blood of Rebirth is by Twin Tail.
  • The Blood of Rebirth was made very quickly, very cheaply, and looks it.
Much of the acting is abysmal. There are long stretches of film that are used to supply boring visuals to accompany Twin Tail's riffs as Oguri is dragged around the woods. Don't waste your time on this film. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Far more interesting, exciting, provocative, artistic, and worth your attention is the new production of The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife that recently began its run at the Brava Center on 24th Street. The show's website describes The Bright River as:
"... a deep-rooted love story, a profound meditation on mass transit, and a passionate indictment of an endless War on Terror in the form of a hip-hop retelling of Dante’s Inferno with Tim Barsky riffing on the Hassidic storytelling tradition with a live soundtrack performed by some of the best hip-hop, jazz, experimental, and fusion musicians performing in the Bay Area."
First produced near the midpoint of the Bush administration, The Bright River is very much the artistic vision of Tim Barsky, a musician/composer/playwright/performer who was recently awarded a $50,000 Gerbode Emerging Playwright's Grant for a hip-hop and circus-based play about junkie cops, strippers, & giant puppets entitled Trackin A Box. Barsky is also co-founder and lead organizer for The Vowel Movement (the oldest beatboxing crew on the West Coast), a beatboxing instructor in San Francisco's juvenile detention facilities, and artistic director of City Circus.

In his relatively short career, Barsky has studied with Hassidic folklorist and archivist Fishel Bresler, performed as a fire juggler in Dublin, Ireland, been a street outreach worker & emergency youth advocate for the state health department of Rhode Island, and performed as a flute-beatboxer with more than a dozen b-boy/b-girl (breakdancing) crews. Having graduated from Brown University with a degree in Islamic & Judaic religious studies, Tim has also studied at the Berklee College of Music and worked as a producer for the Providence Black Repertory Company.

Tim Barsky performing in The Bright River

What Barsky has created in The Bright River is a stunningly original piece of passionate contemporary musical theatre performed by an ensemble that can blow the roof off any theatre. Whether you think of The Bright River as a hip hop/beatbox/jazz opera, an evening of intensely political yet highly romantic anti-war theatre, or a two-hour journey through the underworld and afterlife, one thing is for sure: If you don't leave the theatre in awe of Barsky's creativity and Carlos Aguirre's performance as a humanbeat box, you're probably one of the walking dead.

Tim Barsky, Carlos Aguirre and Alex Kelly

Much of Barsky's piece is performed in the style of bodkin (a traditional Hassidic street theater style that was popular hundreds of years ago in the streets of a Jewish ghetto as well as in the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the early part of the 20th century). Stage director Jessica Heidt (Artistic Director of Climate Theater) describes The Bright River as "the perfect example of what Climate does best – acting as a unique bridge between worlds both artistically and socially – traditional theater and the club scene, traditional Jewish storytelling and hip hop culture; Climate past and Climate present.”

Carlos Aguirre, Tim Barsky, Alex Kelly, and Kevin Carnes

This is actually the show's third incarnation, with a new unit set designed by the ever-amazing Melpomene Katakalos and costumes by Rachel Lyra Hospodar. The Bright River takes place in a bus station in Purgatory, where a fixer named Quick functions as a liaison between the living and the dead.

Among his tasks is reuniting the spirit of a soldier who left South Berkeley and was killed in Iraq with that of his girlfriend -- a young red-headed woman named Calliope who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had made her peace with death, and was eager to find her dead boyfriend's spirit so that she could comfort him in the afterlife. As Barsky explains in his artist's statement:
"I started working on this project at one of the lowest points in my life, when it seemed like the world was literally collapsing. The country was swinging so far to the right I almost felt as if I didn't recognize it anymore. We had a puppet for a president. And all around me, I felt like I was watching my friends, peers, and collaborators get pushed to the brink, and in some cases past it.

A lot of things happened: I saw my first drive-by shooting. I got arrested for filming the Oakland police flee the scene after beating my neighbor until she went into a seizure. One of the best musicians I knew started shooting amphetamines and lost his mind. America sent an army of poor people to Iraq to kill other poor people. I started to feel like I was living in a looking-glass world -- as if everything was upside down, as if night had become day, and day had become night. I felt like I was living in a dream. And I started to wonder if maybe the whole thing wasn't breaking down, not just our world, but the world of the dead as well.

The show took off. More than 8,000 people saw it, and more than two dozen Bay Area artists were employed by it. For about a year and a half, it was all I did. Meanwhile, the war continued, but there was at least the sense of being a part of a movement to stop it. And then, it was over. We hit a wall and, to this day, I can't exactly tell you what it was composed of. But the sense of having ended up back where you started, no further along and half-broken by the process, was breathtaking. People would ask what was happening with the show and I wouldn't know what to tell them. At a certain point, they stopped asking. And at some point I stopped asking too; asking about the war, about the world, about the loss all around me. Maybe we all did, I can't say. It got a bit much to bear. Not much has changed. The war is still going.

Tim Barsky with the cast and crew of The Bright River

I feel as if I’ve spent the past five years watching the best minds of my generation be destroyed by sadness. And perhaps Plato is wrong. Perhaps even the dead have yet to see the end of war. But the city of the dead still lives in my heart. And the people who live in it are closer to me than they have ever been. And with them, the sense that as long as we speak about them, the dead will never die. That as long as we speak out against injustice, that truth is never lost. And the belief that grief may in fact be joy waiting for us to believe.

I still feel this story as strongly as anything I have ever felt. The years haven't been kind. But this much I know is true: the stories we tell matter. And this one is true, even if it never happens. It's about a boy from South Berkeley who dies in Iraq, and the girl from North Berkeley who follows after him. It's about their struggles to breathe, live, and love. It's about a fixer named Quick who tries to find them, a man who can't remember his own death, and who knows every story but his own. It's about a raven born in a prison that falls in love with flying. Mostly, it's a story about the reality of our surroundings, about the cabs, buses, and subways that form the stage on which our lives and deaths are lived. It's a story about mass transit, and the people on it. I guess, really, it's about what I know: Love. Death. War. Life. Transit."

While Barsky receives ample musical support from Kevin Carnes on percussion and Alex Kelly on cello, one cannot underestimate the contribution of Carlos Aguirre (a/k/a Infinite), whose performance as a vocal percussionist anchors much of the show. Dedicated to preserving the voice of youth and the culture of hip hop, Aguirre has used his vocal percussion workshops to help ESL students improve diction and clarity, taught a class in "Literacy through Poetry and Songwriting" at two correctional facilities in the Bay Area, and currently works with Lyrical Minded in a variety of group homes and schools in San Francisco.

A member of Felonious, Aguirre has performed with The Roots, Erykah Badu, Black Eyed Peas, Mary J. Blige, Blackalicious, Jurassic Five, LL Cool J, and George Clinton. Together with Barsky, he is a member of The Vowel Movement (an all beatbox collective dedicated to bringing vocal percussion as an art form to the forefront of musical expression). He is, without doubt, a musical and theatrical force to be reckoned with. If you don't believe me, just watch him performing a duet with John Kloss (an accomplished tap dancer and the founder of Stepology) in the following video clip:

The Bright River continues through February 27th at the Brava Center. You can -- and should -- order tickets here. This is money well spent on local artists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Necessity is the mother of invention..........................