Whether it be the Jonas Brothers, ALF or the Twilight series, most of us have our own guilty pleasures: people or works that are in no aesthetic sense good but that always put a fond smile on our faces. For the narrator played by the masterful Zachary Oberzan in Rambo Solo, that work is First Blood -- not the film that gave birth to the Sylvester Stallone franchise, but David Morell’s 1972 debut novel on which Ted Kotcheff’s film was originally based. Solo is Oberzan’s attempt to lovingly reenact the novel. He doesn’t play himself, per se, nor does he actively play the character of wronged vet John Rambo. Instead, he plays an aficionado with a Stallone drawl, addressing an audience to whom he speaks with the familiarity of new friends seated on the floor of Soho Rep’s Walkerspace.
Oberzan explains how his obsession with the Morrell novel was borne from a viewing of the film on HBO as an adolescent. Afterwards, he bought the novel and read it ad mauseum. In Solo, he narrates Morell’s entire original plot, occasionally commenting on its incongruities and sometimes pointing out how it differs from the film. He also offers legitimate analytic commentary about such things as the bond forged between Rambo and Sheriff Wilfred Teasle (one of the characters hunting down the renegade soldier, played in the film by Brian Dennehy).
Nature Theatre of Oklahoma created Solo. The genesis of this show is purportedly a recorded phone conversation that took place between Pavol Liska and Oberzan. Liska and Kelly Cooper co-conceived and directed this meta work, whose novelty stretches almost all the way through the end of the performance (the show’s last fifteen minutes could have been abbreviated). But there are two things that elevate this original work.
The first is Solo’s overall structure. Oberzan performs his reenactment against a triptych of videos depicting three different versions of the actor giving the same performance in his own studio apartment. (Peter Nigrini is credited with video work and Matt Tierney with sound.) Not only does this satisfy a basic element of audience curiosity (who doesn’t sometimes wonder about the personal details of a performer while watching him or her?), but it is fascinating to see how well-prepared Oberzan is. His live performance matches at least one of the recorded ones almost perfectly at any given time. When Oberzan’s live presentation may skew off by a second or two, he easily realigns his performance to one of the other videos in no time. (It appears that an earpiece he wears keeps him on track.)
The second reason is Oberzan himself. The dynamic performer completely immerses himself as the narrator with enough octane to fuel this avant garde monologue piece. He makes the speaker a three-dimensional man, odd enough to be hopelessly devoted to a dismissed pulp novel yet passionate enough to think that perhaps the work is worth re-examining. He makes his persona’s boneheadedness oddly lovable, and his exuberance absolutely contagious. After a while, the speaker’s gruff rhythms make the dialogue sound like its own kind of poetry.
Particularly amusing is how Oberzan wholeheartedly embraces his own low-rent storytelling techniques. He throws M & Ms on the stage floor to simulate gunfire, and hides under a towel in his bathtub when Rambo must hide from his enemies in a riverbed. And his ebullience for the tale is contagious. He establishes a connection with the audience from the onset of the show, creating a communal feeling that never dies.
Here’s hoping that Oberzan and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma will take on the forgotten Stallone arm-wrestling classic Over the Top next.