The Biblical Tamar Gets Her Moment
10/09/2013
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Call her the Mame Dennis, or Gypsy Rose Lee, of the Bible. Of all the courageous women in the Torah, none has more moxie than Tamar, who will stop at nothing to achieve her ambition — to have a child of her own. Now the bold and wily character is the star of her own musical, “Tamar of the River,” in which the eponymous heroine contrives to bring peace to a war-torn land. Composed by Marisa Michelson, it runs through next weekend at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Directed by Daniel Goldstein, with book and lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen, “Tamar of the River” is an allegorical story, set in a nameless land that is fractured by violent conflict. After Tamar’s mother is injured in a raid on her home, Tamar (Margo Seibert) heeds the call of the anthropomorphized river, which sends her westward into the land of the enemy, whose army is commanded by Judah (Erik Lochtefeld).

After receiving marriage proposals from both of the captain’s sons, sexy Onan (Mike Longo) and nerdy Er (Vince B. Vincent), and sleeping with both to no avail, Tamar seduces their father and takes his staff — only to find that peace is more elusive than the river had led her to believe, and that she, like Moses, may not live to see her vision fulfilled.

Michelson grew up in Amherst, Mass., where she trained to be a classical pianist. She studied musical theater at NYU, beginning at age 15, where her mentor was Adam Guettel  (“Light in the Piazza”). In 2009, she sang with performance artist Meredith Monk in “Songs of Ascension” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a piece that traced upward spiritual journeys from the Buddhist path of enlightenment to Jacob’s heavenly ladder.

In an interview, the composer told The Jewish Week that “Tamar” is composed of a mix of musical styles — “Indian chant meets sacred harp meets new musical theater.” The river, which is performed by multiple actors who sing and dance, unites a dozen kabbalistic emanations of God, including the Shechinah (Margo Basset), who sings along with Tamar.

Michelson views the story of Tamar as a “spinal cord or backbone for exploring moral ambiguity, morality and politics.” Her overarching aim in the piece, she said, is to find a “nexus between art and spirituality.” Music, she believes, is an “invisible thing that can create a space of real listening, that can enable us to communicate in a caring and open way.”

Ted Merwin

“Tamar of the River” runs through Oct. 20 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 150 E. 25th St. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3. For tickets, $25, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.TamarOfTheRiver.com.

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