The text below was written in 2000, when this show debuted at the same theatre in which it’s playing now, in a kind of anniversary comeback. My opinion abouty the show hasn’t changed (except that my appreciation for it is deeper) and nothingmuch about the show itself has changed either—except maybe it has deepened a bit too; everybody’s a little older and they’ve lived with the material for a decade. Oh, and it’s been moved a little closer to the audience: where it used to be performed on a proscenium, it’s now on a slight thrust. The show utterly deserves its return to the boards. And you owe yourself a visit.
Recently a bright and articulate reader wrote to object to an observation I’d made. The fellow had some nice things to say about me as analyst and wordsmith, but felt strongly that my criticism was often "too categorical"—by which (I assume) he meant too often guided by preconceptions of theatre and writing craft that might blind me to the virtues of pieces not conforming to standard. I have no idea if this is true—it’s something I’d given some thought to, even before he raised it—but I admittedly put a high premium on the basic principles and disciplines. So understand how profoundly I mean it when I tell you that a small, low-profile off-off Broadway entry that conforms to no neat categorization, nor established philosophies and principles, quietly rocked me to my very core with the depth and breadth of its originality and uniqueness. It’s called "And God Created Great Whales", it’s not like anything else that ever existed, it deserves a much longer life than its limited off-off Broadway run, and if you miss it, you’ll be shy one lifetime-worthy theatrical memory.
Written, composed and performed by Rinde Eckert, the 75-minute piece is about a composer who—we learn before the action begins—has been informed by doctors that he is losing his mind (possibly to Alzheimer’s, but no disease is ever specifically mentioned). The deterioration is inevitable and unstoppable.
And he hasn’t completed his opus yet: an opera based on "Moby Dick".
When the action starts, our hero, Nathan, rises from his piano, a tape player hooked around his neck and duct-taped to his waist. He seems bewildered. He presses PLAY. And his voice comes through the speakers, reminding him of what is happening, what he is meant to do (finish the opera), how he is to proceed, and the function of all the other tape recorders hung from strings about the space. An orange one for philosophical ruminations, a yellow one for new musical material, etc. He can stop and rewind the tape at any time he feels secure enough to proceed. The further along he needs to listen to his instructions, the further he has deteriorated. There is also a mysterious woman (Nora Cole)—a muse who exists only in Nathan’s mind. But the instructions insist that, no matter what happens, he is to listen to her and follow her advice at all costs.
What follows is a little surreal, a little avant-garde and—when you least expect it—surprisingly linear and logical in its unfolding drama. Thematically it’s a fascinating riff on the nature of artistic obsession—the need to create as a compulsion, even a primal force. And what better metaphorical representation than the need to complete an opera based on "Moby Dick"—featuring Ahab, the ultimate obsessive. The completion of the opus is Nathan’s great whale. (The piece never draws this parallel directly—it’s just there.)
The language of the piece combines fragmentary dialogue with modern opera compositional technique. Even here, the balance is subtle and delicate—the language of madness—of lucidity that turns on a dime into desperate rambling—is authentic, if you’ve ever witnessed a manic depressive episode, or an Alzheimer victim’s attempt to put forth an incomprehensible position. Also authentic are the musical styles employed by Mr. Eckert: clearly they’re a gloss on the current mod-op vocabulary; but for all that they’re comments, they’re not sly or wry or glib: the text and the music to which it is set are completely sincere—you never doubt Nathan’s professionalism, nor his ability to deliver a credible opera. The fact that he is a viable artist, worthy of his own ambitions, is what keeps you rooting for him.
Of course, Mr. Eckert’s knowing performance helps too. Bald, middle aged, stocky, he creates a haunting picture of a man stuck on a metaphorical sea—sometimes unable to pull out of an uncertain limbo that has him half-lidded and reaching out for some indeterminate substance, occasionally allowed the blessed relief of being temporarily anchored. And he sings with a lovely, powerful tenor voice.
As his muse—and the woman upon whom the muse is based—Nora Cole is not quite so haunting, but it’s not her job to be; in an interesting irony, it is she who keeps pragmatism alive for Norman as long as possible. Ms. Cole is herself a fine actress and a versatile mezzo-soprano.
There’s more to say about "And God Created Great Whales"—one could extravagantly praise the atmospheric direction by David Schweizer, the striking set by Kevin Adams, the unusually meticulous sound design by James Rattazzi, the iconic costumes by Clint E.B. Ramos (the duct tape belt alone is unforgettable)—but you’re best merely seeing for yourself.
I dunno. Maybe I am too categorical. Sometimes. But I’m also reminded that when you’re in the presence of genuinely remarkable originality, your other reflexes and biases are bypassed. Critical faculties take a hike, save those that stick around to marvel, wonder and encourage. As my friend Pat Cook has remarked, and I think wisely, "‘Good’ shuts everybody up."
And "And God Created Great Whales" is good.
Maybe that great…Go to David Spencer's Profile