What if the afterlife were as corrupt as our present reality? This is the brilliant conceit behind Tim Barsky‘s The Bright River. The play, now at San Francisco’s A Traveling Jewish Theater, mixes jazz, hip-hop, storytelling, and klezmer to take us on “a mass transit tour of the afterlife.” The beat-boxer Kid Beyond reproduces the sounds of the streets, cars, and subways of the City of the Dead while Barsky tells the story of a detective tracking down the soul of a girl who died too young.

This city is a Blade Runner dystopia where economics, not morality, wins the day. You pay for passage over one of the Bright Rivers the city is built upon, and from then on have to pay rent. The detective, in fact, is no hero; he’s just scraping together enough change to pay his bills. And, we learn, this is the fault of the living: too many wars and too much corruption have torn the fabric of reality, and landed the spirit world with the decidedly un-metaphysical problem of overcrowding.

Part of the show’s power comes from this mix of the gritty and the magical-realist: the characters are human beings from the urban Bay Area who confront spiritual forces, often drawn from kabbalistic legend, and like the heroes of film noir, they hear a moral voice that the spirits around them do not. Barsky leaves us with the question: Why fight wars in this life on behalf of the next if its “higher order” is as dysfunctional as ours down here?