Don't get burned; but do check out this hot new show at The Crucible

Oakland Examiner

By Pamela Mays McDonald

January 13, 2012

When I say "Opera," you say, "What?" Say what?  Many, if not most, Oaklanders have never attended an opera, and the very idea sets off stereotypical fantasies of old cartoons and fat ladies wearing breastplates and horned helmets, shattering glass with the high notes. (For example, What's Opera, Doc? performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl)


Modern-day opera owes something to the irreverent, iconoclastic spirit of Chuck Jones' animated masterpiece. The premiere performance of the new "fire opera" MACHINE took place at The Crucible on Wednesday night. It was a comparatively warm night in Oakland with the light of a full moon. But once inside the cavernous Crucible space, nothing could compare with the light and warmth of the fire onstage. If you've never attended a fire opera or visited The Crucible studios, you are missing one of the exciting artistic and cultural influences in West Oakland.

Let's handle the credits  before we get down and dirty with the actual review. This project is based on the short story Deus Ex Machina by Derek J. Goodman and is being developed in collaboration with composer Clark Supynowicz and writer/director Mark Streshinsky with support from The Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the East Bay Community Foundation's Fund for Artists.

Your Oakland Arts Scene Examiner knew the late Ken Rainin personally; she knew the late Phyllis Wattis; she knows the folks at the East Bay Community Foundation. And this is precisely the sort of effort that would make them all proud. A (literal) melding of classical and radical elements, high art and industrial arts, MACHINE tells the tale of man against man, man against the machine, man against woman. And the back story of this project involves the intervention of what else? A machine. And an engine--a search engine.

Writer and director Mark Streshinsky described the creative process this way:

One day, just for fun, I googled the words Machine, Fire, Zombie, Goddess, Sci Fi...and up popped this really weird short story called Dea ex Machine (Deus ex Machina: "God from the machine"), by Derek J. Goodman. As soon as I read it, I knew it was suited for The Crucible and perfect for an opera.

He hurriedly presented the concept to Michael Sturtz, the legendary Crucible founder, and it took three solid years to produce the show that will be performed on 7th Street for the next two weekends.

Now, let's reiterate one phrase from Streshinsky's narrative: really weird. It's no coincidence that our companion, a young college-age adult, used precisely that phrase when sharing his first impressions during the show. About 20 minutes into the story, he leaned over and whispered, "This is weird. Really weird." 

This is a real opera, with real opera singers, rock singers, an orchestra, supertitles and a crazy, melodramatic plot revolving around an ancient Celtic goddess, a diaphragm-singing deep-voiced hero, an evil villain, a saintly mother and a beloved sister. Now THAT's Opera as most folks think of it, with a capital-O.

But fans know that the Burning Man crowd does everything with a twist, even ballet and opera. Then they add weirdness to that twist, along with the most magical element: fire.

Right from the get-go, the first-time viewer knows this is going to be a different, weird kind of show. First of all, it's all sung in English. What a relief. And the supertitles, projected onto the set, make it easy to keep up with the concoluted storyline and the characters' overwrought emotions.

The plot is a typical sci-fi, anti-corporate, paranoid rant in which our hero is held captive in an evil factory that ensnares him, pays him nothing and makes his family homeless.  Along his odyssey, he deals with loss of his family, loss of his home, loss of his freedom. Very au courant; very Occupy Oakland.

Then there is the skewed lighting and the intricately-welded set, crafted from recycled, rusted and aged, industrial steel. It's hella working-class and gritty, not all fancy, operatic and fruity, including old fashioned tv sets broadcasting artistic backgrounds. One character appears mostly only on the the TVs and even sings his part only on TV.  The entire orchestra is stashed inside the great metal jaws of the set, which represents the evil factory in the plot. The action is punctuated by the beat; secreted around the four  levels of the huge set are seven different percussion players, playing all different kinds of drums, even using sticks to bang on the metal pipes of the set.  Leading the entire assembly, musicians and singers, the conductor, Barnaby Palmer, stands downstage left, under an industrial-strength spotlight. Palmer is an experienced, young conductor whose European conducting chops are belied by his black-leather, playa-ready costume.

The costumes of most characters are what might be called "urban S & M," all black, mostly underwear and lingerie with lots of leather and industrial metal accents. These characters would be perfectly at home at the Folsom Street Fair. Wireless mics allow the cast to climb around the flaming set without losing steam.

The singers are all extremely talented. Of special note is the hero and star of the production, world-class baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, who The SF Chronicle calls "extravagantly gifted with unforced charisma, vocal clarity and heft."  The other singers are pretty awesome, too, and there are some seriously beautiful vocal moments, particularly during one emotional duet, in which the hero and his sister sing the touching, "I Would Give Anything To See You Again."

And if it's fire you love, if it's fire you came to see, it's fire you'll get. All kinds of fire, flames, conflagrations. sparks, fire in class tubes, acetylene torches, even red, molten steel being poured from the upper scaffolding. As a matter of fact, you, the viewer get all the fire you'd ever want, right up front in the early part of the show.  Sometimes, sparks can even reach a viewer in the front pews.  At the foot of the stage is a tongue-in-cheek collection of old and new fire extinguishers, a bow to OFD.  Throughout the performance, every time you start to get a little chill in the vast, cavernous warehouse space, here comes that wonderful, warm, fire feeling as the onstage jets send spurts of fire into the air. Very satisfying to those of us who loves us some.
Recommendation: Go see MACHINE: A Fire Opera--if you can afford it. It's worth the price of admission to see what's going on in the world of contemporary music and fire art. If you can't get to Burning Man to witness the art, this is the next best thing. As the song says, it might get hot in "thur;" and you might be feeingl so hot, but please don't take your clothes off!  And get there early, when the doors open, to grab a seat and get a chance to tour The Crucible's 7th St facility.
The hefty ticket price did not seem to prevent a full house on opening night, but I'm sure The Crucible would want to diversify their audience to include more working-class artists and neighbors. With additional funding, this would be possible, as The Crucible provides free or low-cost classes to youth from homes with limited incomes. But as annual fund-raisers, these fire operas, fire cabarets and fire ballets are an awesome reminder of Oakland's unique and central function, as a sort of urban foundry where new art forms are forged out of the ashes of the old.

'Machine' review: Fire opera forged at Crucible

Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic

San Francisco Chronicle January 21, 2012 04:00 AM

Saturday, January 21, 2012

When he was writing the Nibelheim scene of "Das Rheingold," Richard Wagner could only have dreamed of a setting like the Crucible, Oakland's innovative hub for the industrial and performing arts. Clanging hammers, bursts of fire, rivers of molten steel and glass - all the things that stage designers have historically had to simulate are right there onstage.

The latest theatrical offering to use those resources is "Machine," an hour-long dystopian "fire opera" by librettist-director Mark Streshinsky and composer Clark Suprynowicz. If the actual dramatic fiber of the piece feels a little thin - to the non-aficionado, one science fiction dystopia is much the same as the next - it does have the virtue of reveling in the available pyrotechnics in crowd-pleasing ways.

Jean-François Revon's huge, multitiered set, inventively lit by Lucas Krech, is a wonderful rust-splotched playground populated by fireballs, video monitors, showers of sparks and heavy, clangorous surfaces doing duty as percussion instruments. There's even a secret cutaway chamber to accommodate a flashback to a Middle American kitchen in happier times.

The set represents a factory populated by mind-controlled zombies who have signed up based on the false promise of lucrative paychecks. Instead, they're harnessed to the Machine so they can labor without needing to eat, sleep or excrete. The central power source is a Celtic goddess locked in the basement like a crazy aunt. (Don't ask me - ask Derek J. Goodman, who wrote the short story this is based on.)

Unfortunately, the whole scheme is vulnerable to human error, and the protagonist, a certain William, returns to consciousness when one of the overseers forgets to give him his monthly zombification renewal. Also, you have to love the idea of a slave workforce kept in thrall by the magic power of body markings that turn out to lose their potency with a little soap and warm water.

Anyway, you can see where this is going within the first five minutes. But Streshinsky and Suprynowicz provide some beguiling episodes on the way to the inevitable revolt and apocalypse.

The score, ably conducted by Barnaby Palmer, makes room for both driving, mechanical beats and lyrical interludes (the flashback scene, with William and his family, is particularly touching). If anything, Suprynowicz has more material here than he can use - there's a lot of good music that barely gets heard once before we're rushed on to the next thing.

Wednesday's performance was dominated by baritone Eugene Brancoveanu as William, singing with brilliance and emotional power. He was well matched by Valentina Osinski, in the sometimes thankless role of Sonya, William's overseer/love interest/dominatrix.

Ann-Kathryn Olsen and Alexis Lane Jensen, as William's sister and mother, both sang beautifully, and Joe Meyers was a shadowy, ominous presence as a Best Buy salesman masquerading as a vengeful God. Dawn McCarthy, as the imprisoned goddess Brigid, writhed sinuously but was barely audible.

Machine: Closing-night gala. 8:30 p.m. Sat. The Crucible, 1260 Seventh St., Oakland. $150. (510) 444-0919

E-mail Joshua Kosman at