Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tamar of the River

Last night I saw Joshua H. Cohen and Marisa Michelson's very ambitious show Tamar of the River. Based (very loosely) on incidents from Genesis, the piece tackles issues of war and peace, God, and the importance (and impotence) of a single individual.

The most noteworthy aspect of the piece is the music. The entire cast (with the exception of Tamar) also sings the voice of the River (presumably the River Jordan). Michelson has written some gorgeous choral music in which each singer has a different part, all adding up to a whole much greater than all of those parts, even as each individual voice shines out at one time or another.

This is not your typical Broadway sound. (For one thing, most Broadway shows don't incorporate a hammered dulcimer into the orchestra.) While traditional Jewish and Middle Eastern sounds come out in the music, there is nothing so specific as to place the story geographically anywhere. The multi-racial cast adds to the feeling that the play is everywhere and nowhere all at once, but it is the music that does the most to lift the audience out of a sense of the ordinary and transport them to a different world.

Margo Seibert (Adrian in the upcoming Broadway production of Rocky) plays Tamar, a young woman from the East who travels to the source of the River and meets one of her enemies from the West. That enemy would be the sexy and dangerous Onan, played wonderfully by Mike Longo. He brings her home to his father, Judah. Broadway veteran Erik Lochtefeld downright seizes the stage when he emerges from the River to become Judah. As one of the older members of a cast that is made up mainly of twentysomethings, Lochtefeld has a gravitas that makes him a suitable counterpoint to Seibert's Tamar.

In the home of her enemy, Tamar then sets about to make peace. Judah, while sympathetic to this idealistic young woman, is convinced that peace is impossible and that periodic raids to the East are necessary to gain security for the West. Parallels with the Israeli-Palestinian situation are obvious, but thankfully not strained. Tamar's etherial idealism clashes with the brutal practicality of Judah. Over the course of the play, Tamar becomes more and more desperate while Judah becomes more and more war-weary. Ultimately, however, neither seems to have the answer to the problems of the land.

Following a series of slaughters, Tamar goes back to the River, defeated and despairing. The River embraces her, singing that she is not the solution, but is part of the solution. Tamar, and the audience, must be content with small measures that even if they seem pointless might one day help to bring peace.

Daniel Goldstein, who directed the recent Broadway revival of Godspell, helms this production, and as in Godspell he does a masterful job of using the entire ensemble in an intimate space with the audience on multiple sides. Choreographer Chase Brock deserves much of the credit for how well the staging works, as do set designer Brett J. Banakis and lighting designer Brian Tovar. The costumes by Candida K. Nichols also work perfectly for the amorphous setting.

Prospect Theater Company sometimes does brilliant work (like this year's Unlock'd) and at other times misses the mark. This production, however, is definitely worth seeing. It's playing until October 20th, and you can find more information here:

Tamar of the River