I could pretend that I know what Im talking about in writing this review. I could attempt to sound wise and knowledgeable, but the plain truth is that Ive never experienced anything quite like "Slow Fire," an electric opera composed by Paul Dresher, written and performed by Rinde Eckert and directed by Richard E.T. White, currently in the Studio Theater of the Mondavi Center through Sunday. In fact, at intermission, I wandered around the lobby attempting to eavesdrop on conversations to see what others thought of it.
"Ive always wanted to hear an opera about duck hunting," one person quipped. Others talked about difficulty understanding the words. One group was trying to come up with their own interpretation. "I think Im understanding it," a woman said. "Its all that man stuff," a gentleman said, using Tim Allens faux macho voice. Some of the audience did not return for Act 2, which was unfortunate since Act 2 tied things together and I found that not only was I "getting it," I was also liking it.
Described by The San Francisco Chronicle as "a tour de force of intellectual and emotional artistry...a masterpiece," "Slow Fire" was originally written 1986 and toured the country for 11 years before being retired by its creators. In 2005 it is being revived by popular demand of the fans who felt their lives had been touched by this study of the relationship of a man and his son ("Dad" and "Bob") and how their interaction with each other affects their interaction with the world around them.
Rinde Eckert is a phenomenal performance artist who is writer, director, singer, actor and movement artist all rolled into one, with a powerful voice and an uncanny ability to be equally believable as the young Bob and as his father with just the simplest change in body language. It was pointed out in the opening night artist encounter following the performance that when the piece was originally written Eckert was Bobs age and he is now Dads age, which has given a different interpretation to the two characters.
Eckerts heroes are Charlie Chaplain, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton and his own fluidity of motion, finding the comic in his character, and his ability to communicate with the audience not only verbally but also through his body language shows that he has learned his lessons from these comic geniuses well.
"Slow Fire" can be enjoyed on several levels. There is the father-son relationship, the desire of the father to pass along his knowledge to his son, and difficulty that the son has in putting it all together. There is a marvelous scene at the end of Act 1 where all of fathers platitudes, which we have come to know quite well--"The early bird gets the worm," "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," "early to bed, early to rise," etc.--get jumbled into random words which make no sense whatsoever.
It can be enjoyed for its political satire, the allusion to the decline of the family farm in this country (represented by Dads insistence on the need to acquire land as the only real wealth), to our expansion into Vietnam and Cambodia and other foreign territories, to the worship of guns in our society.
Or it can just be enjoyed for the true spectacle of it. The imaginative lighting design of Larry Neil. The antics of Eckert as he prances, rolls, jumps and slides across the floor. The music of Paul Dresher, who also plays guitar and keyboard and mans the electronics, accompanied by Gene Reffkin on the electronic percussion.
Is this a show for everyone? No. But its a unique evening of theater that is worth attending just to be a part of something very special. If avant guard theater is not your style, give it a try anyway. You might just be surprised to discover how much there is to enjoy.