by Ron Cohen · October 3, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #4: Ron Cohen looks at Tamar of the River presented by Prospect Theater Company It’s hard to imagine a more ambitious piece of musical drama coming out of indie theatre than Prospect Theater Company’s production of Tamar of the River. The book, co-written by composer Marisa Michelson and lyricist Joshua H. Cohen, takes the names of its characters and some details of plot from a chapter in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis. On these elements, the writers have devised their own mythic meditation on the unpredictable complexities of attempting to achieve peace in a world long consumed by war.
The river of the title divides the two sides of a country -- East and West -- split by war for generations; the blood of the populace has turned the river red. Tamar is a young woman of the East, who hears the voices of the river urging her to bring peace to the land. There are, of course, echoes here of Joan of Arc: a girl pulled into a mission she does not quite comprehend or know how to fulfill. Tamar‘s task takes her into the West, where she becomes involved with the household of Judah, commander of the Western army, and his three sons. Unexpected tragedies follow in the wake of her moves for peace, the voices of the river fall silent, and Tamar is thrust into despair. Finally, however, the voices assure Tamar that “peace will come,” but it will take time, so much time that Tamar will not live to see it. However, they assure her, in a closing that works through darkness to a sense of joy, that the footsteps she has taken have begun the path to peace. In a post-performance conversation I had with Cohen (no relation to this writer) and Michelson, they drew an analogy to Moses, who after leading his people through the desert, died before he himself could reach the Promised Land.
This is fable-like storytelling. Twists of plot come abruptly, and motivations are explained in forthright fashion, with little attention to nuance. However, the narrative takes on immense power through Michelson’s rich and distinctive score. Not to demean the lyrics or book with its contemporary resonance, but Tamar of the River is more opera than musical theatre. While there are stretches of unaccompanied dialogue, the music, as it should in opera, dominates the words. There are gorgeous choral sections sung by a 12-person ensemble as the voices of the river. Soaring arias punctuate lyrical passages with haunting Middle Eastern-like lamentation, set against insistent nervous rhythms from the ear-filling five-piece band.
In the title role, Margo Seibert delivers an extraordinary performance, matching Michelson’s love of glissando and difficult phrasings with passion and vocal beauty, while delineating convincingly the progress and setbacks of Tamar’s journey as a prophet of peace. (Seibert has been cast as the love interest in the forthcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the movie Rocky, and I can’t help wondering if she’ll find anything there to compare with the material she has here.) There are also finely sung characterizations by Erik Lochtefeld as Judah, Mike Longo and Vince B. Vincent as two of his sons, and Ako as Tamar’s mother. The four also join in the ensemble as river voices.
Director Daniel Goldstein has put together a production that is visually as well as aurally arresting. The set design by Brett J. Banakis is a long relatively narrow platform, dividing the audience into two facing sections. At one end, the platform abuts a towering series of risers with the band perched on one side. Chase Brock’s choreography provides a sense of almost non-stop movement. Sometimes there’s almost too much movement, threatening to distract from the story. But there’s no masking the formidable talents that have created this work, which, if there’s any theatrical justice, should find its way into adventurous opera houses and regional theatres with the necessary musical chops around the country and even internationally. For the nonce, it’s playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, through October 20.