Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which has forged a sharp, witty and utterly distinctive performance style from elements charitably called garbage, has hit the mother lode in “Rambo Solo.” Conceived and made flesh by company founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the idiosyncratic one-man piece is performed with hilarious conviction by Zachary Oberzan, whose maniacally funny (and quite touching) obsession with the story of “Rambo: First Blood” inspired the show. A snug fit at SoHo Rep, which collects all kinds of artistic oddities, the lunatic creation is enhanced by a meticulously filmed chronicle of Oberzan’s Odyssean efforts to explain himself.
After entering the theater through a circuitous backstage route, the audience is invited to ponder the significance of Oberzan’s Rambo obsession while reclining on the carpeted floor of the black-box theater. More intimate than this, you can hardly get.
Laughing aside, the close, protective cushion of intimacy is actually critical to this confessional piece, in which Oberzan reveals, but refrains from analyzing, his boyish need to connect with a strong, stern, punishing, but still loving father-figure. In fact, it’s only in the final trope of this heated aria that he allows himself to examine “this weird sorta psychological bond” between Rambo and Wilfred Teasle, the small-town sheriff who leads the pack of lawmen hunting down the young soldier.
“Obviously it’s not what many people would consider grand literature,” he says of the book’s pulp ending, in which the dying Teasle is “flooded with love” for the kid whose head he’s just shot off. “But for me, it is just as grand, and just as universal, as Hamlet.”
Even that tiny indication of self-knowledge would be anathema to such austere performance-theater companies as the Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service, to mention two obvious role models. But Nature Theater of Oklahoma is made of less stern stuff, and that softening touch of compassion (for “universal” humanity, as Oberzan might put it) is what makes them more accessible than their technologically purist colleagues.
Which is not to say the company has left its tech toys at home.
Working with three separate, but conjoined screens, designer Peter Nigrini projects three filmed narratives of Oberzan in his cramped Manhattan apartment, manfully attempting, on three separate occasions, to make his own “dream” version of “Rambo: First Blood.” That is to say, the original pulp novel by David Morell, not the movie, because as Oberzan notes in his onstage performance — closely synchronized with all three filmed versions of the same script — Sylvester Stallone makes “a complete circus” out of “True Art.”
As we learn from all four of his stage personas, the performer-scribe was first exposed to the material when he read the book at age 11 or 12 and found it so compelling he had to read it another eight or nine times.
“It’s not just like a Pulp Action Macho sort of thing,” he insists — while peering out from behind his shower curtain and crawling around his loft bed, in order to give us a visual sense of the physical hardships Rambo experiences. The book provides “some real human … uh … some real human insights, I … I think.”
The hems and haws and strangled articulations of half-baked thoughts are all intrinsic to this meandering soliloquy, just as they are to Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s performance style. Watching Oberzan struggling (on screen and in person) to find the words to express his inchoate thoughts and dammed-up feelings is funny as hell. And sadder than mere words — or even goofy films — can express.