As the title suggests, April Ranger’s play Bathsheba’s Psalms, Or a Woman of Unusual Beauty Taking a Bath looks to the Old Testament for its text. The play is based on the tale of the wife of one of King David’s soldiers, who attracts the lascivious royal gaze. Ranger’s script addresses issues that are on the minds of a lot of playgoers these days, and Christina Roussos’ direction is imaginative and playful.
Children who’ve been told the Bathsheba story in Sunday school may have a fuzzy memory of it, as biblical stories with a racy element tend to get glossed over or bowdlerized in lessons for grade-schoolers, Here’s the gist: David is up on the palace roof one day when he spies Bathsheba taking a bath. David already has a few wives; plus, he once had an intensely emotional “covenant” relationship with his friend Jonathan. Now, though, he decides he must possess this bathing beauty. Being the most entitled man in the realm, he wastes no time in setting up a tryst. Afterward, he puts Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in harm’s way during battle. Soon, Bathsheba is a war widow.
Ranger spins the story for a 2019 audience mindful of and vigilant about sex and gender issues—especially those involving consent, privilege and toxic masculinity. The play transpires in a sort of limbo-like dimension that is part Iron Age and part near-future. It’s a world in which the old gender rules are fully in play. Powerful men can take and then discard women as they please, and if a woman goes to a pharmacy to pick up a morning-after pill, she’ll get turned down with sneering derision: “We’re a Christian nation now. No more murdered babies on our hands.”
The sensual, life-affirming Bathsheba (played by the poised and serene Tanyamaria) believes things in the sexual sphere can be different. She has known Uriah since they were close childhood friends. Their relationship has included an intimacy and a relatively egalitarian spirit that have apparently been mutually comforting. Now, though, Uriah is preoccupied with the masculine world of battle, and his attitude toward her has seemingly changed. Bathsheba, who has the soul of a poet, advocates for a world in which intimate relationships can be not only companionable but also sexy—a world where “no” means “no,” but where “yes” can mean, “Yes! How great that both of us are into this. Let’s go for it!”
Roussos has directed a relatively spare production, employing a “chorus” of four actors in addition to Tanyamaria. They include Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez, TL Thompson, C. Bain and Elizabeth Kenny. These talented young performers play all of the supporting parts, and they take turns in the roles of King David and Uriah, irrespective of their own gender identities. This creates a mood of fluidity and inclusiveness. Plus, it’s good fun to see how each of the actors brings out a different facet of a particular character. The performers wear 21st-century street clothes, but costume designer Karim Rivera Rosado has provided wardrobe accessories—a crown for David, a gold-colored vest suggesting armor for Uriah—that get passed around to whoever is playing a particular role at a given moment.
The script is full of comic bits, including parodic pop-culture references to films (Casablanca, Top Gun) and video games. But it also contains verses from imagined books of the Bible, notably “The Book of Beauty” and “Bathsheba’s Psalms.” Bathsheba’s verses are largely erotic. As she would, later in life, become mother to Solomon—the sometimes-attributed author of “Song of Solomon” (the book of the Bible most famous for its sensual poetry)—this seems apt. One of her songs exclaims: “With me, god, my sex is like some kind of river opening up to the ocean. I want more, and I feel, I feel the way, I guess, the way fresh water must feel when it leaves the river and pours out.”
Bathsheba is also fascinated with sunrises and sunsets. “Sometimes,” she remarks, “I think the reason I fuck is because I’m obsessed with sunlight and I’m not a painter.” Production designer Itohan Edoloyi helps create some radiant dawn/dusk lighting effects on the small stage, which is bare except for a couple of painted cubes, along with vines (some flowering, some not) hung from the ceiling. Caroline Eng’s sound design also enhances the production. Bathsheba’s bathing pool, for instance, is created with a gurgling noise on the soundtrack while Tanyamaria puts her arms before her in a circle to suggest the rim of a tub.
Simple but creative effects such as this help to make Bathsheba’s Psalms a satisfying visceral experience as well as a thoughtful, cerebral one. When the house lights came up at the end of the performance under review, everyone in the audience seemed to have blissful smiles on their faces. That’s something you don’t see at many shows, even at much more richly appointed ones than this.
Bathsheba’s Psalms, Or a Woman of Unusual Beauty Taking a Bath (through April 21, 2019)
The Tank, 312 W. 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-563-6269 or visit http://www.thetanknyc.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission