Originally published by SF Weekly Mar 20, 2002
©2002 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
A daring new opera from ACT gives seven accounts of a slave owner's mysterious disappearance
It's been a big year for ACT, what with the introduction of a new core acting troupe and the celebration of its 35th anniversary. But the company's most daring artistic endeavor of the season may be The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a newly commissioned opera that comes to sweet fruition this weekend. Written by Mac Wellman -- and featuring Kronos Quartet -- the "opera in seven tellings" is based on a short story of the same name written by the American satirist and abolitionist Ambrose Bierce in 1893. The tale is about a slave owner in the antebellum South who walks into a field one day and disappears; the story's mysterious nature is compounded by the fact that Bierce himself -- 20 years later, at age 71 -- walked into the Mexican desert and was never seen again.
Such a Rod Serling-esque legend is ideal for absurdist Wellman, whose libretto extracts the right measure of poetics and politics from Bierce's narrative, extending it into a compelling 80-minute operatic piece told from seven points of view. While Bierce's story tells the tale of a slave owner who simply vanished one day, it is also a metaphor for a nation attempting to erase an ugly past. Wellman finds lucidity in the ludicrousness of human nature through his unique manipulation of sentence structure ("I mean I think today would be the perfect day to drop into the hole of not talking," says one character). He also sets the play to David Lang's "very fast creepy music." With raplike repetition, Wellman emphasizes the significance of the work; the result is less didactic than it is observant. He doesn't blame the slave owner for his heinous crimes so much as he recognizes the crimes we continue to commit by forgetting our history. "We are building a nation," sings the chorus. "We are building an erasure."