‘River’ a hip-hop trip to the underworld

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Tim Barsky’s “The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife” is a one-of-a-kind journey for adventurous theatergoers.

Onstage at Brava Theater Center, the show — Barsky’s trippy monologue set to eclectic live and taped music — reprises successful Bay Area productions that ran in 2004-05 at Traveling Jewish Theatre and Ashby Stage.

Now, according to Barsky’s statement in the program notes, the time is better than ever to bring back the piece, with the world still being in much the same sad, sorry, scary shape as it was when he first wrote and performed it.

Barsky, attired in black, is a wonder to watch as he narrates the mostly dark, dreamy, surrealistic story of a “fixer” who’s sent underground to a transit station between life and death in search of a young woman with cystic fibrosis and her boyfriend, a soldier who died in Iraq.

The fixer, called Quick and with a voice like Tom Waits, is the most developed character in the fluid piece, essentially an evening-long poem set to original music.

In addition to telling the story with panache, Barsky plays the flute, accompanied by human beat-boxer Carlos Aguirre (alternating in the role with Constantine Abramson), giving the production its hip-hop vibe, along with Kevin Carnes on drums and Alex Kelly on cello. Electronics and sampling, rounding out the musical performances, add emphasis to the moody tone.

The set, a backdrop of looming metallic shapes by Melpomene Katakalos suggesting an urban scene, and nicely shifting lighting design by Heather Basarab increase the production’s notable theatricality.

Though Barsky fills and easily commands the stage, he shares it not only with his fellow performers — who get their moment in the spotlight — but also with audience members, who are encouraged to shout out their reactions to the story and philosophical musings offered up throughout.

The interactive aspect of “Bright River,” under spirited direction by Jessica Heidt, makes what could be a cool, esoteric exercise a thoroughly engaging, human piece of theater.

At times during a Saturday night performance last month, the connection between the performers and the audience was as moving as a religious experience — clearly the effect for which independent theater champion Barsky and his compatriots are aiming.

IF YOU GO
The Bright River

Where: Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 20
Tickets: $17 to $35
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com, www.thebrightriver.com

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