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Black Gold 

Word for Word strikes it rich with Oil!, transforming a neglected great novel into fertile drama

Wednesday, Jan 24 2001
I don't mean to gush, but Word for Word's production of Oil! at the Magic may be the best play, so far, of 2001.

Oil! is Upton Sinclair's novel about the Southern California oil boom of the early 1900s. It starts with a languorous chapter called "The Ride" that spends 20-odd pages on the highway itself -- "a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand." It's not very eventful. A 13-year-old boy named Bunny rides with his oil-magnate dad in a new jalopy to a town called Beach City, passing a buzzard, a speed cop, and several varieties of yucca. If ordinary plays follow dramatic arcs, the first chapter of Oil! takes a slow upward grade. But Word for Word still turns "The Ride" into an imaginative, funny, and evocative piece of theater.

The company does it, first, by fattening the cast. Along with Bunny and his father, director Delia MacDougall has populated the stage with an Engine, played by Gendell Hernandez, and a Speedometer, played by Stephanie Hunt (holding a red dowel). These four human figures climb onto a kinetic sculpture designed by Oliver DiCicco, which represents the car, a fifth character. It has a bench seat, two running boards, two cylinders, a skeletal grille with quivering headlamp eyes, and a pair of decorative front wheels with spokes made of free-spinning aluminum tubes. Hernandez, as the Engine, works a pair of pedals that twirl the wheels and churn the cylinders; he's also in charge of the jalopy's built-in percussion kit of drums and rattles and horns.

Word for Word is one of our excellent local peculiarities, a theater troupe that devotes itself to staging fiction verbatim. Its self-imposed discipline is to use every word in a piece of fiction -- including "he said" or "she said" -- as onstage dialogue. Normally the group does short stories. With Oil! it's breaking into longer fiction; the new "Opening the Book" project is meant to introduce audiences to daunting and neglected great novels.

Sinclair's 1927 opus introduces Bunny Ross, a young man who inherits his father's oil-drilling business and then shifts, politically, to socialism. It describes not just the early paving of Southern California but also the birth of Hollywood and the first echoes in America of the Russian Revolution. In other words, it's a novel about the 20th century's substructure. Chapter 1 is all suggestion and theme-development. No scandals or strikes break out, but we have a car and a few stretches of asphalt to hint at oil's future dominance in California; we also have a pair of Capitalists riding in a car with two indispensable Workers -- the Engine and the Speedometer, both dressed like mechanics. MacDougall's clever directing highlights these suggestions; it gives the prose form as a play, and drives the story toward a gentle climax that has everything to do with class.

Some touches improve the novel by making it funny. In one scene the jalopy spins downhill at a dangerous clip, past a road sign reading "15 m.p.h." Bunny looks excited and a little fearful next to the proud, superior figure of Dad, who has old-fashioned spectacles and a cigar jammed into his mouth. "Dad gave no evidence that he knew how to read either that sign," says Bunny, "or the speedometer," says the Speedometer. Deciding who says what is everything in a Word for Word production.

Molly Harvey is excellent as the earnest, enthusiastic, hero-struck boy; Robert Parsons is an unflappable Dad. Hernandez is a vigorous Engine, and Hunt does brilliant work as not just the Speedometer but also a yucca, a wild rose, the speed cop, and a swiveling restaurant door. My only complaint is with Hunt's and Hernandez's overwrought mugging as road and shop signs in the sleepy middle of the play. They seem to think that overdoing it will keep the audience entertained, but they (or MacDougall) should just accept the fact that parts of "The Ride" are boring.

The cast, along with lighting designer Jim Cave, achieves one of the show's nicest effects near the end, when Bunny and Dad get out for a rest stop in Santa Ynez. Under yellowish light, in the sudden calm after the jalopy's noise, the stage feels vividly dusty and quiet, like an early California town. The whole scene is unexpectedly beautiful. Between-scene transitions are also compelling: Dark blue lights and a thumping rhythm on the PA undercut the story's sunny surface optimism. It's attention to details like this that make "The Ride" an interesting play. MacDougall's light hand lets the novel's deeper implications -- about its own drama as well as California's -- bubble to the surface.


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