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A CurtainUp Review
And God Created Great Whales

Rinde Eckert Is Back With His Whale of a Show
Mr. Eckert has been moving around with his unusual show. He drew appreciative crowds during a brief run at MASS MoCA in North Adams last Summer. Now he's back at his original Off-Broadway venue, 45 Bleecker Theater. (212-307-4100) (1 hour 15 minutes) Closes Jan. 13. The production notes of the review below have been updated with current performance details. -- Elyse Sommer

How dost thou know that some entire,
living, thinking thing may not be invisibly
and uninterpenetratingly standing
precisely where thou now standest;
aye, and standing there in thy spite?
---Moby Dick, ch. 108

Rinde Eckert 
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

We all know quite well of the ephemeral nature of performance, of those irreplaceable moments during which forces come together to produce the truly astonishing and wonderful. But we think quite a bit less about the fleeting nature of the underlying art, of the limited opportunity that exists for the forces that must coalesce in order to produce that play, or symphony... or opera. That's the concern of this new work, confronted in its most brittle instance.

Life imitates art all right, and the parallels between this play and Moby Dick are as unmistakable as they are plentiful, thoughtful and intricate. Nathan (Rinde Eckert), endearing piano tuner and would-be opera composer, has to contend with two whales every bit as formidable as the one that torments Ahab. He is trying to write an opera based on Moby Dick; he's also fighting the progressive deterioration of his own memory. A set of tape recorders -- color coded as to purpose and one of which is permanently hanging around his neck -- provide the footprints his mind must follow each time it's forced to retrace. The tape is also a sort of benchmark, devastatingly playing on longer and longer as his mind requires more and more information to reäquaint itself with where it has been. 

Nathan is also served by a muse (Nora Cole) who cajoles his attention to his urgent work. Though in his mind, this muse (his tape tells him) is infallible. Inspired by an opera singer who gave up her classical career, we learn (elsewhere) that the muse also embodies many of Eckert's own notions about, among other things, the grandiosity of opera.

And God Created Great Whales may not be as grand as opera, but it is stunningly beautiful. Eckert works in a style that certainly falls in the category "experimental," but the shards of Melville's classic he feeds us are more (hopefully familiar) glimpses than deconstructions. Nathan may look like a mess, with his tape contraption tethered to his body with duct tape, but when Eckert -- his large dome-topped frame revealing every tumbling nuance of Nathan's frustrations -- lifts his fine tenor voice in song, our attention is turned sharply from what we see to what we hear. Ms. Cole, too, fills the air with exquisite sound. Eckert's music is eclectic -- he often accompanies himself on the piano that occupies a fair share of 45 Bleecker's wide stage -- but increasingly glorious in its presentation. 

More beauty still is achieved by Kevin Adams, whose set/lighting design, hard to adequately describe and only vaguely revealed in the picture above, is a masterpiece. Dozens of raw light bulbs adorn the stage and transform it into Nathan's veering mindscape.

At times, this beauty is matched by intensity, but gaining a firm grip on that force often eludes Eckert. His storytelling cannot adequately hold us. There is much here of interest to lovers of the book, still more for opera fans and those inclined to ponder its creative process. But while Ishmael spins Melville's often convoluted yarn over a myriad of chapters, theater does not allow such luxuries. Neither Eckert nor his director, David Schweizer -- whose work is worthy of many praises -- find a way to keep us on Nathan's path: something visceral is lost. This is a very pleasurable experience, but less compelling than it might have been.

Written and Composed by Rinde Eckert 
Directed by David Schweizer

Starring Mr. Eckert with Nora Cole 
Set and Lighting Design: Kevin Adams 
Costume Design: Clint E. B. Ramos
Sound Design: James Rattazzi 
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes with no intermission 
The Culture Project presentation of The Foundry Theatre production
45 Bleecker Theatre, 45 Bleecker Street (Lafayette/Bowery) 212/ 253-9983-212/ 307-4100 
Opens 9/6/2000 closes 10/1/2000 -- revival: 11/14/01-1/13/02; opening 11/15/01 Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM; Sunday at 4:00 PM -- $35
Reviewed by Les Gutman
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