Composed by Paul Dresher
Written by Rinde Eckert
Directed by Richard E.T. White
Performed by Rinde Eckert
March 14-March 18, 2007
Project Artaud Theater
No surprise that, when you put three extremely talented theater people in a room together what results is a show. When the three people are the gifted composer/musician Paul Dresher, the esteemed director Richard E.T. White and the multi-talented writer/performer Rinde Eckert, the result also is nothing short of extraordinary. “Slow Fire,” now playing in a too-short run at Theater Artaud is just such a production – or rather, an “electric opera,” as it is billed. Visually stunning, impeccably performed by Eckert who sings, dances and acts up a storm (quite literally as a tornado figures prominently in the second act), backed up by Dresher himself on keyboards and percussionist Gene Reffkin, it’s an Everyman story with a twist. If Eckert’s “Bob” is Everyman, who are we?
“Slow Fire” is more than 20 years old. The first in Dresher’s “American Trilogy,” collaboration with Eckert that began in 1985 and lasted for five years, it examines the conflict between America’s rural past and contemporary urban culture. Premiered at the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival in 1986, it is firmly rooted in the Reagan era and, while still relevant, is beginning to show its age. Conspicuous consumerism, yes, cell phones and computers, no. The gun culture, yes, rampant terrorism and homelessness, no. Government and corporate corruption, maybe about the same, except that we hear and read about it more today. Although the emphasis on manifest destiny and land acquisition could be extended to this country’s current adventures in Iraq, it still seems a tad dated. This is not a fault. You can’t blame Puccini for setting “La Boheme” in the late 19th century. “Slow Fire” is the verismo of its time.
The music also derives from the hard-edged rock sound of the 80s, much of the time. Even if that’s not your style, there is no denying the excellence. Director White probably came on board for this outing because Dresher wrote the music (a much different score, showing the composer’s maturity) for Berkeley Rep’s “To The Lighthouse,” directed by White. It was a happy coincidence. Lights flash, panels come up and down, doubling and tripling as highway stripes, the daily newspaper, scrapbooks and room dividers. There is a wonderful interplay of light and shadow (designer Tom Ontiveros). Eckert himself is a force of nature, positively wondrous to behold as he plays Bob as a little kid, taking road trips across America with his dad, as a novice duck hunter, a nervous wreck in his own home – the sum total of all his fears – and a cold-blooded hit man. Bob’s father (also Eckert) is full of advice (a swimming lesson turns into a recitation of clichés), a failure with grandiose dreams. His mantra is “keep driving” and that’s just what he does until he drives himself into a corner from which he will not escape.
Will Bob eventually do the same? Will we? No answers, just better and better questions. “Slow Fire” burns with intensity. It’s not the kind of thing that comes along every day.