Forgetting his task at hand

A journey too difficult to forget

`Great Whales' is heartfelt and rewarding drama

Theater Review

May 16, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

No doubt about it - the Center Stage subscription season has never included anything quite like Rinde Eckert's And God Created Great Whales.

Part chamber opera and part performance art, this Obie Award-winning show is the type of avant-garde piece previously limited to the theater's former Off Center series. But eccentric as Whales may be, it strikes an empathetic chord with themes ranging from mental deterioration to the nature of creativity, the importance of leaving a legacy and even the struggle between life and death.

Created, composed and performed by Eckert (who is joined on stage by actress Nora Cole), Whales is accessible on another level as well. It relies heavily on one of the most famous American novels ever written - Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Eckert plays a piano tuner named Nathan, who is composing an opera based on the classic novel. But just as Captain Ahab battled the great white whale, Nathan is battling his own leviathan. Nathan's monster is an unnamed progressive illness that is devouring his memory. And his fate, like Ahab's, is inescapable.

Determined to finish his opera before his mind is completely gone, Nathan has devised several aids to keep him on track. One of these is a tape recorder that hangs from a strap around his neck and is duct-taped around the waist of his disheveled gray three-piece suit.

When he pushes "play," he hears the following words (which are repeated several times in the course of the 80-minute show): "Your name is Nathan. You are suffering memory loss. You are listening to a set of instructions you put together to help you continue." Later, plainly but poignantly, the recorded voice will say: "If you are still listening, your disease has progressed." The recording's final words, which I won't quote here, are quite simply heartrending.

The tape also introduces Nathan's most important aid - a woman (Cole) identified in the program as "Muse" and on the tape as "a product of your imagination." The Muse prods Nathan to get on with his opera; she joins him in enacting various roles, and, when his mind wanders into the past, she assumes the added role of Olivia, a world-famous opera singer with whom Nathan was infatuated.

Although Nathan insists "there are no comforting visions," the notion that this talented, but increasingly debilitated, man has a guiding spirit watching over him will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever longed to hold on to someone or something that seems forever lost.

As directed by former Baltimorean David Schweizer, Eckert and Cole's interaction varies from the playfulness of portraying the 19th-century sailors and seaside New England merchants in Nathan's opera, to the no-nonsense exchanges in which the Muse gently but insistently steers Nathan's meandering mind back on course.

The highly individualized personalities Eckert and Cole have created for Nathan and the Muse are reflected in every aspect of their performances, from their singing voices (his displaying an almost unearthly range; hers, warm and operatic) to their movements (his, awkward and childlike; hers, fluid and graceful).

Clint E. B. Ramos' costumes and Kevin Adams' set and lighting further reinforce the links between Nathan's plight and Moby Dick. Cole, for example, wears a flowing red chiffon dress with a gold-braid-trimmed bustier - a subtle reminder of both whalebone corsets and ship's rigging.

The central feature of Adams' Head Theater set is a grand piano. Plastered with little pieces of paper, the piano is topped by two ropes that ascend in a sail-like configuration. This musical instrument is the ship on which Nathan will make his final voyage to immortality.

Produced by off-Broadway's Foundry Theatre, And God Created Great Whales is the first show Center Stage has ever imported in toto as part of its main season. While it's a shame to depart from homegrown fare, artistic director Irene Lewis has said this was the only way to bring the work here.

And God Created Great Whales won't be to everyone's taste, but theatergoers willing to venture into uncharted waters will find it a distinctive and rewarding journey.

And God Created Great Whales

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Sundays and June 1, 8 and 15. Through June 16

Admission: $24-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

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