By LINDA BUCHWALD
In the new musical Tamar of the River, now at Baruch Performing Arts Center in a production from Prospect Theater Company, the water is more than a set piece or a metaphor. It's a literal character, played throughout the show by various actors in the ensemble.
That underlines how the production---with music by Marisa Michelson, lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen, and a book by both---deviates from the Biblical tale of Tamar and Judah. Now set in an unspecified, slightly fantastical land, the story follows Tamar as she tries to bring peace to a warring East and West. She's guided by prophecies that she gets directly from the river that separates the feuding factions.
But how can actors bring a river to life? What does it sound like? How does it move? Discussing the latter, Tamrin Goldberg, one of the "river actors," says, "You're not going to see triple pirouettes and high legs. It's more about movement as opposed to steps. We have pretty simple choreography and it's specific."
Choreographer Chase Brock echoes her assessment, noting that he wanted his work to seem inseparable from Michelson's score. "Marisa is very committed to a natural style of singing where you're not trying to sing in a belt or sing in a head voice," he says. "You're more connected than that."
To give the choreography an equally fluid feel, Brock devised near-constant movement for the production---a contrast from most musicals where movement starts and stops with a song. In one section, for instance, actors sing from onstage risers, their bodies rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their vocal parts. When the singing stops, the movement continues. "It's all really natural movement which challenges us all to stay in the feel of the piece," says Goldberg. "You can't just zone out and wait for the next thing to happen because we're always kind of moving."
Brock was also inspired by the subtlety of Michelson's music. "Oftentimes you're not even aware there's a low hum that's happening. You can't even see their mouths moving at all," he says. "I wanted the dance to feel the same way. Not showy, but about something that felt really inevitable and really connected to the earth and to the elements."
As is often the case, Brock has infused his work with a variety of styles and influences. (Earlier this year, he drew from ten international dance styles to choreograph Venice at the Public Theater.) The movement in Tamar uses very specific hand gestures, which he took from classical Indian mudras, and because the story isn't set in a particular place, he also borrowed from Israeli, Indian, Javanese, Thai, Danish, Belgian, and Greek dance.
Despite this dense DNA, Goldberg says the end result isn't complicated to perform. In fact, she feels it makes the story clearer: "There's this really great quote that I heard. I don't know where it came from or who said it first, but it says when you can't express what you're trying to say with words just by speaking, you sing. And when you can't express what you're trying to say through singing, you dance. Movement takes what we''re trying to say to the next level. It just builds on top of what's already such a beautiful story. It's like the icing on top of the cake."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science
Photo Richard Termine