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A CurtainUp Review

It's an allegory involving two ancient workmen, masons, building a wall, a foundation, a church. They don't have enough bricks to build the whole foundation so they must dismantle the old work in order to have bricks enough to complete the new work. In this way they will continue until the end of time, building, dismantling, and rebuilding.
Rinde Eckert in Horizon
Rinde Eckert, in Horizon (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
To bring subjects such as God, ethics and Christian belief to the stage these days demonstrates a certain daring. The American theater, like so much of our media, often feels as though it is has turned its back on serious thought. But the performance artist, singer, and musician Rinde Eckert has created a performance piece that tries to challenge easy ideas. Inspired by the life and writings of the American theologian, preacher and social activist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Eckert has fashioned Horizon — a loosely biographic, sometimes enticing, other times stolid, exploration of Christian ethics and freedom of thought.

At New York Theatre Workshop, the stage transforms into a laboratory for the several sites of Eckert's story. Upstage, vertical chalk boards on easels spell out the word "HORIZON." Reinhart Poole (Eckert) sits in front of them at a folding table, possibly preparing to teach his last class at the seminary from which he has just been fired, perhaps writing a dramatic parable.

Downstage, designer Alexander V. Nichols has artfully situated up-turned sawhorses and several piles of cinderblocks. Here Mason #1 (the excellent David Barlow) and Mason #2 (Howard Swain), the characters in Poole's parable, alternately build and take apart a wall. Indeed, these Everymen, who remind one of Beckett's stranded pair in Waiting for Godot, have been building this wall for 1,750 years and are terrified that Poole will give up on his play, depriving them of their existence.

Other stories emerge throughout the intermissionless performance: Poole's relationship with his minister father (Swain) and radical, extroverted brother (Barlow); his interaction with the cowardly seminary head (Swain) who has fired him for iconoclastic statements; the affection for his wife, Patricia (Barlow), the only person who can distract the theologian from intellectual pursuits. But the parable of the wall-builders is the piece's center.

In previous work, notably And God Created Great Whales (2000), about a piano tuner and would-be composer trying, despite failing memory, to write an opera based on Melville's Moby Dick, Eckert combined a subtle tale with delicate theatricality. As produced in New York by the Foundry Theatre, there was a magicality about Whales which reviewing the piece for CurtainUp, Les Gutman called it ""stunningly beautiful." ( see review). By contrast, Horizons feels like a heavy-handed, if passionate, response to the issue of rigorous religious belief versus intellectual freedom. Eternally building a wall is an over-used image, both intellectually and visually. It seems that we have no sooner digested Poole's classroom questions (what happens when you write "Judgment" on the blackboard and then put "God's" before it?) than we are asked to consider another problem from Philosophy 101: the photograph of an "empty" field on a bright day. Is the field truly empty or, as Poole asks his students to contemplate, have the horses just moved outside the frame, and is it the absence of the horses that the viewer should ponder? Where is the meaning, and is meaning always self-evident? Should we ignore restrictions and frames?

Eventually we sense that, in the manner of many a postmodern work, Horizon is looking at several issues from a variety of angles and offering no solutions, only more questions. Perhaps the director, David Schweizer, who staged Whales so imaginatively, became somewhat strangled by this new text. The questions Eckert raises about limits and breaking bounds, about horizon, are urgent, and the theater, with its history of challenging the status quo, is a fine place-maybe even one of the last places--to examine them. But one longs for the imagination of a Robert Wilson, to leaven the frequently trite spoken text with original and fanciful theatricality.

By Rinde Eckert.
Directed by David Schweizer.
Cast: Rinde Eckert (Reinhart Poole), David Barlow (Reinhart's wife, brother), Howard Swein (Reinhart's mother, father)
Set and lighting: Alexander V. Nichols
Costumes: David Zinn
Original music: Eckert
Sound: Gregory T. Kuhn
Choreography: David Barlow
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, (212) 239-6200.
From 6/01/07 to 7/01/07; opening 6/05/07
Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.
TicketsTickets are $50, CheapTix program in which all tickets for all Sunday evening performances will cost $20; $20 student tickets based on availability.
Reviewed by Alexis Greene on June 5th
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