The good news is that the fire-suppression system works at the Crucible, West Oakland's industrial-arts-school-slash-
Burning-Man-mecca-slash-performance-space. The bad news is that it proved itself at the beginning of the masked ball scene in the opening-night performance of Romeo and Juliet, history's first recorded Fire Ballet. A large flaming chandelier draped with four aerialists from Flyaway Productions got cranked up too close to the sprinkler, fifteen or twenty feet above the stage. Great sheets of water came down, enveloping the stage and the first row of audience members in a silvery calm. It took a moment to realize something had gone awry, even as the red-and-black-clad dancers who had been tangoing just a moment before with flaming staffs and fans disappeared.
The spell was broken when one aerialist, hanging by her knees, screamed, "Get me down!" We watched in fear water was beginning to pour off the edge of the stage as the chandelier was slowly lowered. Once the dancers were safe, black-clad volunteers scrambled to clear the water off the stage with giant brooms and propane heaters.
Crucible founder Michael Sturtz, clad in his usual cowboy hat, black leather pants, and long black coat, came out and told us that if we were willing to hang on and make room for the cherry-picker and firefighters the show might go on.
An hour later, the stage and aisles were piled with sopping rags, and Sturtz was sheepishly ebullient. "Anywhere else," he congratulated the audience, "and you would have already been home asleep by now." Indeed, most had stuck it out, cheering wildly at everything. That included senior studio manager Joey Gottbrath descending triumphant and dirty from replacing the sprinkler head, which required that he hang upside down in a climbing harness with his legs scissored around the main ceiling beam; the dancers coming out in their street clothes to test the stage's dryness; and sexy firefighters making sure the line was repressurized. "Now this," I said to someone crushed into the aisle with me, "this is live theater." All but the 22 people who'd asked for refunds or a ticket swap sat back down, and the doomed lovers got no watery reprieve after all.
Even without what Sturtz called the Oakland Fire Department's half-time show, the Fire Ballet is damn exciting. The first big scene features Jonathan Rider's deliciously innovative Capulet-Montague streetfight, with the Flavor Group breakdancers facing off against Wushu West while the Flyaway ladies undulate like seaweed on a spiral staircase. That same staircase features later in a swordfight that borders on the gratuitous, making every Errol Flynn movie seem measly and pale by comparison. The prince who tries unsuccessfully to end the feud is a real live whirling dervish with fire blossoming off the hem of his robe in a lovely, sinuous blue curve. Around the action, asbestos-and-leather-clad artisan instructors of the Crucible forge steel, blow glass, and cast molten metal into props.
Oh, the ballet: right. Full disclosure: I worked backstage at the Crucible's first Fire Opera, Dido and Aeneas, and the classically trained artists on that really had to stretch to accommodate the unusual challenges of working with a bunch of gleeful pyros. A singer alleged to fear heights had to ride up and down on a scissor lift, and many of the musicians, accustomed to clean concert halls, visibly trembled every time a gout of flame came near their priceless centuries-old instruments. And who can fault them? But they had it easy compared to the ballet dancers, who had to learn to fight with flaming swords attached to propane canisters strapped to their thighs, and to emote while gulping fire. Easton Smith (Romeo) and a particularly fine Maurya Kerr (Juliet) are game, and Corinne Blum's choreography is as hot as the various propane, solar, and LED-powered props.
The Crucible has come a long way since its 1999 opening. I remember covering the second Fire Arts Festival fund-raiser back in 2000, when the acts ran hours behind and the high point was when Sturtz lit himself on fire and flew down a zip-line to crash through a giant sheet of paper. The Crucible's events have since gotten a lot slicker and better organized, but the fact that almost everyone stayed when it looked like the show might not go on attests to the loyalty within this community, slickness and whiz-bang aside.
It's fitting that one of my first reviews for the Express was about the Crucible, because this will be one of my last. I'll be leaving my post at the end of February to pursue my own artistic endeavors. It has been a great honor and privilege these past six years to be your critic; I've had countless experiences not all as dramatic as watching five hundred people root for a shaken, water-soaked cast, but close that have taught me the power, necessity, and accessibility of live theater. I hope I have helped you have a richer and better informed experience, and not steered you wrong too often.
I'll see you at the show. Hopefully dry.
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