Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Bathsheba's Psalms Or, a Woman of Unusual Beauty Taking a Bath

Tanyamaria. Background - Elizabeth Kenny, Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez, C. Bain.
Photo credit: Jody Christopherson

A fresh take on the Old Testament’s tale of King David and Bathsheba, April Ranger’s play, in its world premiere at The Tank, uses vulgarity and contemporary touchstones to create an occasionally provocative discussion on sex and power politics.

The play updates the traditional story of how King David, who already had several wives, spies Bathesheba bathing as he walks along his palace roof and decides he must bed her. The married beauty reluctantly engages in a tryst, and David purposely sends her soldier husband to the frontlines where he perishes. In the biblical version, David eventually shows remorse for his deeds, and accepts his punishment. The story represents God’s forgiveness and the possibility for redemption.

In Ranger’s version, no redemption is possible. David embraces his lascivious ways until the end of his life and no character ever moves forward. Bathesheba is never more than a pawn trapped in a culture where power, privilege and masculinity rule. Despite giving her story centerstage as actors quote from the imaginary “Bathsheba’s Psalms” and “The Book of Beauty,” Ranger’s take only reinforces the reality of life’s unfairness for women, offering little new perspective. Still, she allows us to see the familiar trope in all its ugliness. When messengers come to bring Bathsheba to King David, one states: “Come to the palace so the king can hold your breasts and ass and smell you and fuck you.” The strong language jostles the audience, plunging them into Bathesheba’s hardship: a moral dilemma with no real choice, but acquiescence. The harshness would work better if the play employed less cursing though. The show uses salty language so consistently that it eventually becomes ineffectual.

Bathesheba faces her situation with grace and humor—elaborately running away although she knows there is no escape. Despite her lack of options, she still must endure the judgment of society. When Bathesheba visits a pharmacy to obtain the morning-after pill after the king impregnates her, the clerk mocks her, saying, “We’re a Christian nation now. No more murdered babies on our hands.”

The hypocrisy exposed by the situation is unfortunately not unfamiliar and while Ranger updates the story with pop-culture nods to movies such as "Top Gun" and video games, she never moves the topic beyond simply acknowledging that time and modernity have not remedied the inequity of power.

Bathesheba, played by Tanyamari, embraces a graceful outlook on what life offers her—something the actress, who seemingly glows from within, conveys. Instead, Bathesheba finds beauty in the sunrise. Production designer Itohan Edoloyi casts lovely lighting across the sparse stage during these moments, allowing the audience to see the potential of the brand new day even as Bathesheba’s reality closes around her. The future mother of King Solomon has an overt sexuality that mingles with her dignity. She is sexy and she knows it, but that trait doesn’t define her as a woman, even if it’s how society labels her.

Christina Roussos’ direction introduces whimsy into the story, with missives dropping from the ceiling and a child’s playroom box of costumes on stage. Actors use the accessories to suggest characters, grabbing the crown to play David and a vest to become Uriah, Bathesheba’s husband. Rousso uses just four actors, a Greek chorus of sorts, that play all of the secondary characters, mixing and matching personas and genders. Some do better than others. While Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez flubbed too many words, C Bain consistently recites lines with fluidity and emotion.

“Bathesheba” ends April 21. The Tank is at 312 W. 36th St.

(Press ticket, third row).

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