Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Oil! Chapter One is One Terrific Ride

Word for Word, whose mission is to tell good stories with simple and elegant theatricality, brings back one of their classic productions, Upton Sinclair's Oil! Chapter One: "The Ride" at the Magic Theatre. This 75 minute no intermission show was first presented by the company in January, 2001 to critical acclaim. The run was so successful that Word for Word decided to revive the dramatization of the first chapter of Sinclair's novel of early 20th century oil industry in Southern California.

Oil!'s first chapter has little to do with the author's exploration of the ruthless greed and infamous scandals of the industry during the early part of the 20th century. It is centered on a wonderful father and son's uninhibited automobile ride through our golden state in 1912, staged here with a dazzling concoction of an interactive kinetic metal piece with chrome pipe wheels, bucket lamps, grillwork, springs and oil pumps - based on a 1912 Sterns automobile. Olivier DiCicco's sculpture is a masterpiece and the star of the show as it moves left, right, center and backwards on a make believe highway of the early 1900s.

Oil!s' tale of the decisive road trip is told by 13 year "Bunny" Ross (Max Napier), the sensitive son of a sturdy self-made oil operator J. Arnold Ross (Robert Parsons). The two are on their way across mountain passes and through "speed trap" towns to Beach City where J. Arnold will close an important deal on the expansion of his oil business. The mood is jovial in their open air automobile, and there is adventure in the air as they speed as high as 50 mph toward their destination. Along the way they meet the newly formed highway patrols, a shrewd judge, and a heartwarming roadside restaurant waitress, all played vibrantly by Stephanie Hunt.

Rounding out the cast is Gendell Hernandez, who plays various roles such as an egotistical horse (as in horsepower of the auto), the fey French designer of what the well dressed person should wear while driving an auto (complete with goggles and hat), and a Mexican gas station attendant. Hernandez also provides the various sound effects of the excited engine of the Stern open air vehicle. His performance in all of the roles is effervescent.

Robert Parson portrays the oil magnate with a hierarchy of power - he believes the road belongs primary to him. As the son says, "Dad understood that highway signs were for people who didn't know how to drive." He firmly prophesies that some day it will be illegal to drive under 30 miles an hour on paved highways. Max Napier as the young 13 year old boy has excellent stage presence and is charming as the dreamer. Director Delia MacDoughall's treatment of the material is gratifying, and she centers the performances on the father and son. The aforementioned Oliver DiCicco automobile is an amazing work of art.

Oil!-Chapter One: "The Ride plays through December 7th at the Magic Theatre, Northside, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-437-6775 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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