nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
March 20, 2009
If the American Theatre is to survive—survive the economic apocalypse, survive the onslaught of digital entertainment, survive the popular gravitation towards the archaic and homogenized—it will be because of plays like Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's Rambo Solo. Consisting of a spare set, ingenious technical wizardry, and a bravura one-man performance by co-conceiver Zachary Oberzan, Rambo Solo is somehow concocted from equal parts brilliance, curiosity, and utter absurdity.
In concession, Rambo Solo may not sound like much: a consummate slacker dude—Oberzan as a Stallone-esque Everyman—spends the better part of 90 minutes alone on stage, recounting the plot of First Blood, the novel on which Sylvester Stallone's first cinematic foray as John Rambo was based. Projected on screens behind Oberzan are three variations on his performance, each filmed in his studio apartment, each running in silent, near-perfect synch with the live presentation. Oberzan's dialogue—replete with grunts, aborted tangents, and sentences that run on into infinities—has been lifted from an unscripted, unrehearsed telephone conversation. Occasionally, there are sound effects (creaking futons, dishes in a sink, skittered M&M's in replication of gunfire) and a taste of audience participation. That's it; that's all.
And yet, Rambo Solo is brilliant theatre. Beyond the puckish humor and conceptual flourish, Rambo Solo belies an intrinsic curiosity with our culture's relationship to the nature of storytelling. A literal medium amalgam, this is a play about a film about a book, ideally suited to a culture that internalizes stories and reinvents narrative with The Self as the star; thus Zachary Oberzan is John Rambo, warrior and voyeur, couch potato and killing machine. He becomes the cipher on which audience members may project themselves, recounting their own fond memories of Han Solo, Zorro, or Huckleberry Finn: the characters that have slipped into our subconscious and helped to define generations.
Oberzan brings infectious relish to his narrative and an impressive command to the oft elliptical and stuttering language. Audience members may find themselves as equally wrapped up in the strange story of John Rambo as in the toll the tale takes on Oberzan; we listen wondering how a wiry Vietnam vet will evade his enemies, but we watch to see if Oberzan will survive the telling, or burst from anxious joy.
Conceived and directed by the team of Pavol Liska and Kelly Cooper, Rambo Solo seeks in every way to destabilize theatrical convention and, in its place, craft something new and immediate. The unique non-traditional experience of Rambo Solo begins with the audience's arrival at the venue, SoHo Rep's Walkerspace, as they are led through the subterranean backstage area and into the theatre; Oberzan, speaking in a fair approximation of Sylvester Stallone's drawl, welcomes audience members to the show, and encourages them to find a comfortable seat on the carpeted floor of the theatre. Audience members, seated communally, lounge upon pillows and cushions; the theatre is quite literally an extension of Oberzan's studio apartment. In staging and in concept, Rambo Solo challenges the accepted ideas of how stories are told and of the participatory role spectators may play.
Rambo Solo is the best kind of art: it is simultaneously silly and profound, engaging and disparaging, able to embrace the material and its audience while thumbing its nose at recognizable tropes, tricks, and conjecture. Those who seek theatre unafraid to ask hard questions and deny easy answers will thrill to the ingenuity of this piece; those seeking a good time with a charming personality, a few jokes, and a classic tale of coming of age will likewise not be disappointed.