Bill Oberst Jr. brings his stunning one-man show ‘Pillar of Fire’ back to the South Pasadena Library Friday
On Aug. 11, Bill Oberst Jr. faced what could have been an actor’s ultimate nightmare.
Oberst was scheduled to perform his solo adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Pillar of Fire” at the South Pasadena Public Library that night when he received word five hours before show time that the entire building had been hit by a power outage.
His show normally depended on lighting, amplified sound, recorded voices and special effects, so rescheduling the show would have been the solution for most people. But instead, Oberst took the crash as a challenge and decided to perform the show “unplugged” on the lawn outside and pulled it off so well that he earned a prolonged standing ovation from the 75 people in attendance.
Oberst will be returning to the library’s Community Room Saturday night to restage the show, which was selected as the Best Solo Show of 2015 in Los Angeles by theatrical review website Bitter Lemons and won that year’s Platinum Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. This time, he’s hoping to deliver a truly electrified performance, in more ways than one.
“I had to do the show on the front porch, jumping around competing with sounds of babies and traffic,” says Oberst. “It worked not because of me, but because of Bradbury and his genius. That performance had nothing but a very frightened actor jumping around trying to keep everyone’s attention and the words of Bradbury to try and make it work.”
The fact that 51-year-old Oberst had his most memorable acting experience while performing “Pillar” is fitting, considering the changes in his life since discovering the story at age 12. He recalls being an embittered outsider walking alone in the woods surrounding his South Carolina hometown when he found the Bradbury paperback story collection “S Is For Space” on the ground and discovered “Pillar” on the first page he randomly opened.
“It opened my imagination and led to me reading constantly and wanting to act,” says Oberst. “I didn’t realize until years later that flipping open a book randomly is the way Bradbury himself told people to explore a new one. He also saved my adolescence as a lonely boy by letting me know there were other misfits in this world.”
Oberst portrays a man named William Lantry, who awakens from the grave in 2349 after 400 years of being buried, at a time in which the earth has been cleansed of images of death and all corpses. Halloween has been obliterated and cities have towering incinerators where dead people are burned without ceremony. When the government decides to destroy the last remaining graveyard and digs up Lantry, he represents all that is absent from the sterile world.
“Pillar” was a precursor to the timeless Bradbury classic “Fahrenheit 451,” which was written as a response to the still-recent era of book burnings and censorship in Nazi Germany. It used the idea of incinerators as a means of burning corpses with no ceremony or reverence as a metaphor for the book burnings as well.
“Back then, a prominent psychiatrist was saying that horror-genre comics had bad effects on minds, and there were burnings of them around the US,” says Oberst. “This was Bradbury’s love letter to Edgar Allen Poe and ‘Oz’ stories he read at a very early age, and you could feel his passion in it because it’s very poetic.”
Oberst’s distinctive looks have helped him build a thriving career with 163 roles thus far in crime and horror-genre TV shows and films. He regards horror-film acting legend Lon Chaney Jr. as his inspiration due to the pathos he brought to his portrayals of characters viewers might otherwise dismiss as simply monstrous or evil.
His turn as Unsub, one of the rare serial killers to escape capture or death on the hit CBS series “Criminal Minds,” is perhaps his most widely seen role in traditional media. However, he earned more than 100 million views for his villain role in the Facebook-related app “Take This Lollipop,” which won a Daytime Emmy in 2012 for the category of New Approaches in Daytime Entertainment.
He portrayed a menacing man who appears to alter viewers’ online profiles in the interactive experience, which was designed to be a fun way to teach people to be wary of online predators. Oberst also enjoys portraying historical figures and, among many others, has played Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in addition to Civil War General William T. Sherman.
“The people that I play tend to be misanthropic and have some malevolent intent and don’t say a lot,” Oberst explains. “These one-man shows are a way for me to enjoy language, and I try to portray historical figures using only their own words and try to boil them down to what about them is lasting and important.”
Surprisingly for a man who mostly plays villains, Oberst is most passionate in his love of portraying biblical tales. He regards himself as a devout Christian, making it clear he tries to base his beliefs upon his own understanding of the Bible rather than on any particular church’s interpretation of it.
That devotion has inspired him to create “Genesis,” a 50-minute solo rendition of the key moments in the Bible’s opening book. But it’s his portrayal of Jesus in his show “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which he invites audience members to ask questions that he answers directly using the quotes of Jesus from the Gospels.
“I did the Jesus performance a couple thousand times, and I did it in all types of houses of worship: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and non-denominational,” says Oberst. “When people hear the actual words, they don’t fight or bicker, they all get along. My personal belief is that everybody would follow Jesus if it weren’t for Christians, and I say that as one.”
Bill Oberst Jr. performs “Pillar of Fire” at 7 p.m. Friday in the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and refreshments will be served. Admission is free and no tickets and reservations are needed. Call (626) 403-7340 or visit billoberst.com.