“Please let it mean something,” Tim Barsky begins, “that one winter’s night I walked from Hunters Point to Oakland.” This is just after he’s taken the stage clad in his standard baggy black pants and even baggier white hoodie to lay down the hypnotic blend of flute and beatboxing that signals the beginning of one of his ornate, multilayered stories. Right now Dreaming in the Firestorm is a monologue with music about how he couldn’t get a ride home after a gig, and ended up wandering downtown San Francisco trying to cadge a ride home and thinking deep thoughts about fire. Loose and sprawling? Yes. Affecting and wise? Those too, if you can keep track of what’s going on, whom Barsky is channeling, and whether he’s still on his walk, or at his day gig teaching, or pulling his girlfriend’s son out of a burning house.
Firestorm recalls the Australian dreamtime, a place where everything is happening at once and physical boundaries are meaningless. Relying heavily on atmospheric and animal imagery — fire, flood, snow, ravens, hammerhead sharks, mice — Barsky plays with our sense of what “really” happened on his long walk home. When he gets paranoid that a bunch of birds in a bus shelter are talking shit about him, or receives a fine coat from a mouse rabbi, it’s as “real” as his finding someone who will lend him a cell phone outside a party: “Look for the two girls on Ecstasy,” he says. “There are always two girls on Ecstasy at warehouse parties. Maybe they’re the same two girls.”
Deeply real is a digression following Barsky to school, where he tries to explain to his students why they shouldn’t unicycle and eat Doritos at the same time. This section is acidly hilarious, from the two-item checklist every teacher must memorize (Is the child dead? and Is the child bleeding really obviously?) to the parallels between an East Oakland grade school and a World War II beach landing in the Pacific theater. It’s inspired stuff, howlingly funny, and yet every bit as full of rage at economic and social injustice as any other part of his work.
Barsky’s Everyday Theatre shows come together a little differently than regular plays, which might get a staged reading and then a full production. The workshop process is much more public. Barsky comes out alone first, presenting the spine of what he has, and then builds on it over months before showing it again with more people, more sound, more motion. Firestorm fits the pattern, except that this time he has veteran director Ellen Sebastian Chang in his corner, and it shows. His characters are getting more rounded and more motivated, some more than others. The man who gets the last of the narrator’s cash is neatly drawn, down to the squeaky voice and pinched face. The DJ Mustafa, who audiences may recognize from Barsky’s Invisible Cities, is wonderfully vibrant, and more distinct than either the paramedic winding hoses outside Barsky’s place or Lindsay the novice firefighter facing the Oakland Hills conflagration, as intriguing as their stories are.
There are places where Firestorm doesn’t hang together yet, and the connection between the poetic and the prosaic feels forced. Some of the images aren’t fully formed, such as a weaving motif Barsky toys with and then drops until near the end. But there’s a lot of good stuff in here — interlaced stories, characters with surprising connections, folklore, politics, music, history. On a deeper level, his characters express an essential disconnection, a sense of being lost or out of step, “stuck in a state of constant ambivalence,” even as they desperately care about the world.