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Slow Burn

March 19, 2007

I was in two minds about attending a performance of the 20th Anniversary Production of Slow Fire. Anniversaries of this kind often make me suspicious -- all too often, theatre productions, no matter how great they might have been in their heyday, feel dated after the passing of a certain amount of time. The cynic in me tends to think of anniversary performances as money-making or nostalgia-driven endeavors more than anything else.

But I'm so glad that I experienced this seminal "electronic opera" by composer/musician Paul Dresher and writer/performer Rinde Eckert. The piece was created in 1985, but even with all this elapsed time, it felt weirdly fresh and disarming.

The jubilant-reckless physicality of Eckert's performance and his Pavarotti-on-crack voice carry the themes of American political hubris and familial breakdowns into the 21st century. Eckert treats the stage like a playground -- he's 20 years older, thicker and balder than when he first created the role, but you wouldn't know it from the way he throws himself about the stage performing full body-dives as if he were a rock star. In fact, Eckert reminded me on several occasions of Talking Heads' David Byrne during the performance, for his apoplectic, nervous energy and the timbre of his voice.

The details of the staging are painfully beautiful. White cards on the floor reveal themselves to be white lines on a rolling highway to nowhere. At one point, a large trapdoor in part of the stage opens up to reveal Eckert building origami-like wooden ducks in a little den or office, which he eventually shoots down with large tubes of the kind that architects use to store plans for buildings. Against the fierce lights, the tubes suddenly transform themselves into hunting rifles. The production makes much reference to wild ducks, but we're a long way away from Ibsen.

And all this despite the fact that an 80s aesthetic unapologetically roots the show in the era of its creation. It's funny to see how the old rockers involved in the production (percussionist Gene Rifkin even wears a sleeveless shirt, skinny tie and tapered jeans) don't fret with trying to update the opera's various technological gadgets. The music, played on electronic guitars, synthesizers, and drums is very Pink Floyd meets Jean Michel Jarre. A phone that Eckert speaks into is the old-fashioned sort -- attached to a wall rather than the tiny, silver slivers people walk around with these days. There are references to obsolete technologies like "tape decks" and Eckert swings a couple of camping lights around at one point which appear to be powered by a massive portable battery, strapped to a pouch in the front of his hunting vest.

I'm now all fired up to see the West Coast Premiere of The Tyrant, Dresher's latest chamber opera which receives its full west coast premiere at Cal Performances on June 7. (I say "full" because parts of the work have been seen on the west coast before.) Starring tenor John Duykers, The Tyrant is inspired by Italo Calvino’s remarkable short story A King Listens. According to the press release, the collaborators take one of the key elements of the story -- a king, unable to physically leave his throne for fear of overthrow, who is forced to experience his kingdom entirely through the medium of sound -- and build a new text upon this premise.

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