Theater archives

Seeking Revenge in Rambo Solo and Hamlet


Last week, I watched a familiar character soliloquize upon the stage. I saw a troubled man, a melancholy one, haunted by past tragedies. I saw a man betrayed by those he loved and trusted. I saw a man set upon revenge, yet unsure of how to perform it. I write, of course, of Rambo.

In Rambo Solo, a poignant and jocular performance piece by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Zachary Oberzan provides a highly detailed summary of David Morrell’s First Blood, the 1972 novel that sparked the Rambo film franchise. A primer for the uninitiated: Unbalanced Vietnam vet is harassed by small-town cops and seeks brutal recompense. Though Oberzan—a stocky, affable blond—does not resemble Rambo star Sylvester Stallone, he delivers this 90-minute monologue in Stallone’s granular mumble, and torques and twists his body in imitation of Stallone’s athletics. “Rambo,” he insists, “is just a fucking badass.”

Oberzan has fixated on the Rambo story for 25 years, ever since he saw the film during a free weekend of HBO. (The set at Soho Rep perhaps replicates that first viewing—audiences sprawl on a tan shag carpet strewn with throw pillows.) Knowing Oberzan’s mania, Nature Theater artistic directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper arrived at his studio apartment with a video camera and asked him to recount the First Blood plot. They filmed Oberzan’s speech, then returned to his apartment several more times and filmed him re-enacting it. As Oberzan addresses us at Soho Rep—hooked to an iPod that prompts his speech—the split screen behind him shows three other Oberzans (all with different facial hair) uttering the same words.

Rambo Solo explores obsession, masculinity, and our reluctance to recognize how little we resemble our heroes. Oberzan admits that by the time he acquires the money to make a version of First Blood more faithful to the novel, he’ll be too old to play its lead. Besides, he says, with some resignation, Rambo’s “Prob’ly like a real ectomorph . . . really lean and—and strong.” But in a triumphant reversal, Oberzan discards such considerations and decides to make the film—which he has subsequently released—in which he plays all the roles and uses his tiny apartment for all the settings. He defends his project, saying that First Blood is “not what many people would call grand literature . . . but for me, it—it is just as grand and just as universal as—as—as Hamlet.”

Hamlet, that grand and universal play, receives a new production, courtesy of director David Esbjornson and Theatre for a New Audience. In the role of the Danish prince, Esbjornson has cast Christian Camargo, a strong and lean ectomorph. Indeed, Camargo seemed the chief inducement for nearly a dozen giddy young women who laced the audience at a recent preview. During the intervals, they lavished praise upon his inky hair and pointed cheekbones. As for the play, well, they were sure it was very good—but, oh, those flashing eyes!

Actually, it is very good, though possessed of some idiosyncrasies. Swathes of text are intercut or transposed into other scenes, and it’s a rare Hamlet that includes the Fortinbras scene in Act I, but cuts the one in Act V. The set, sound, and lighting are handsome, though Esbjornson is overfond of special effects, and costumer Elizabeth Clancy puts Gertrude in dresses that threaten to strangle her before Hamlet has his chance. As for Camargo, he gains in confidence and authority as the play progresses—not that the girls seemed to notice.