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There's Gold in Them Thar Words 

Oil!: "The Ride"

Wednesday, Jan 3 2001
Close to a century ago, Upton Sinclair forged the model of the writer as social critic. His 1906 novel The Jungle, about the Chicago meatpacking industry, inspired President Teddy Roosevelt to investigate and ultimately legislate improvements in the squalid and exploitative business. In 1916, Sinclair came to California and later ran a pair of unsuccessful bids for governor. Even so, his contributions to the state weren't limited to failed progressive politics.

Among the many socially minded novels the author penned, Oil! became a classic, placing Sinclair in the orbit of Twain, London, Steinbeck, and others who have inked the California story. Encompassing the Southern California oil boom of the early '20s, the novel catalogs not only a cast of dyed-in-the-wool Golden State characters, but also the scandal in which President Warren G. Harding's secretary of the interior horse-traded SoCal oil development rights to a petroleum company in exchange for cash and no-interest "loans."

Theater group Word for Word brings Sinclair's novel to the stage, and while the politics may take the back seat in this production, the author's intent won't be forgotten. In local theater, Word for Word's got a unique racket: Rather than staging plays, the troupe acts out short stories and novel excerpts literally -- that is, word for word. What's most surprising about this tactic is its effectiveness. Actors voice not only their characters' dialogue, but also the story's expository writing, its narrative course. In a sense, it's fiction brought to life, true page-to-stage rendering. With Sinclair's bulky Oil!, Word for Word will limit itself to the first chapter, "The Ride." Not to worry, though: This group consistently wrings more life out of a couple pages of fiction than many other local groups can muster from an entire play.

In contrast to its tendency for sparse stages where the author's words are the primary focus, Word for Word commissioned sculptor and Mobius Operandi musician Oliver DiCicco to design the central set piece for Oil!, a kinetic sculpture based on the 1912 Stearns automobile employed by many greedy souls on their way to strike it rich in California's oil boom. Word for Word further expands its range by adding the program "Opening the Book," wherein scholars of Upton Sinclair discuss the writer after Friday night shows. On Jan. 12, the guest scholar will be Lauren Coodley, followed a week later by California historian and Sinclair expert Gray Brechin. On Jan. 26, SFSU professor Jules Tygiel helms the discussion.

About The Author

Todd Dayton


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