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Theater review: 'And God Created Great Whales' at REDCAT

January 26, 2012 |  2:25 pm

Rinde Eckert
Don’t call him Ishmael. Nathan is having enough trouble remembering his own name.

A loveably disheveled piano tuner and composer, Nathan’s task is to somehow finish his “Moby Dick” opera before he loses his memory. His is a race against time and more than one form of madness in “And God Created Great Whales,” a stunningly effective theater piece that Rinde Eckert first produced in New York 12 years ago and that opened at REDCAT on Wednesday night.

Eckert and director David Schweizer revised the 80-minute production for an eight-week revival beginning next month in New York, which meant it luckily happened to be available when Robert Wilson canceled his re-creation of his 1977 “I Was Sitting on My Patio and This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating,” scheduled at REDCAT last month. “Patio” was to have been the CalArts-operated black box’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time. But Wilson -- busy readying “Einstein on the Beach” in Ann Arbor, Mich., for an international revival –- postponed “Patio” for a later date.

There are curiosities here, the first being that the multi-talented Eckert –- who created, composed, made the sound design and wrote “Whales” and who gives a dazzling performance that includes not only brilliantly original acting, but also brilliantly original singing, as well as playing the piano and the ukulele credibly -– was inspired by the 1976 “Einstein” to create his own unique brand of music theater.

Another curiosity is our own wide-ranging fascination with whales. A striking school of orcas startled whale watchers at Dana Point just the other day. Meanwhile, San Diego Opera is readying Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick” for its West Coast premiere on Feb. 18. Last time I checked, the current bid on EBay for a unique version of Herman Melville’s novel, obsessively typed on four rolls of toilet paper, was $199.

Under the circumstances, perhaps the doughy Nathan isn’t such an oddity after all. He has portable cassette tape machines to keep him going. One is a tape he made to remind himself what his job is in writing his opera. On others he can record his progress. He will, he tells himself, eventually drown in his own ignorance. But first he will drown in “Moby Dick.”

I don’t want to make this sound grim, because it is funny. Ha-ha funny and ah-ha funny as well. Looking like a goofy big dog, Nathan stumbles through his "Moby Dick" project. Sometimes he knows what he’s doing, sometimes he doesn't.  Kevin Adams' set includes a beat-up baby grand, with nautical trappings and dozens of pieces of paper roped around it on which Nathan can work. Clint Ramos' costumes include those cassette machines Nathan can hang around his neck.

He also has a muse, Olivia, whom he has fashioned in the form of a retired opera singer and upon whom he has yet another obsession. As Olivia, Nora Cole has to do nearly as many things as well as Eckert. She is Nathan’s alter-ego, invention and last connection with reality. She also assumes the character of the real Olivia. She keeps Nathan going as long as possible, as Nathan pounds out passages of his “Moby Dick,” while also flashing back on his life as a nebbishy piano tuner.

Nathan’s opera is as quirky as he is, its musical style post-minimally grand. Eckert takes amusing swipes at operatic style. But as Nathan more and more inhabits his opera's characters, he not only captures  Ahab in song, he enters into Ahab's madness. His memories are Ahab's memories and Ahab takes on a startling reality.

"Whales” is not about whales. Moby Dick makes no appearance. Yet as “Moby Dick” consumes Nathan, a great whale symbolizes boldly and affectingly the ways obsession and memory can help us –- at least for a while -– keep ourselves together.

Many composers and theater artists through the years have significantly harpooned “Moby Dick,” including Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann and Laurie Anderson. Eckert has created a great “Whales.”

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-- Mark Swed

"And God Created Great Whales," REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A. 8:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 3:30 Sun.;  $20-$25 (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Photo: Rinde Eckert in his "And God Created Great Whales" at REDCAT. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.

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