Rinde Eckert's And God Created Great Whales; Shange's for colored girls..., 25 Years Later

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Nathan, Eckert's character in this 75-minute piece directed by David Schweizer, is a composer suffering from a disease that is destroying his memory, and he is intent on finishing his magnum opus?an opera based on Moby Dick?before his mind disappears. He orients himself each day with the help of a tape recorder tied around his neck, which tells him who he is and what to do, in a voice that may or may not be wholly benevolent (it could be a doctor's, or his own at an earlier time). A Muse in a red dress and whalebone corset, played by Nora Cole, shares the stage with him, prodding him to creative work, sometimes ministering to him; at the same time, her motivations are suspect. "She is a product of your imagination," says the taped voice, but this doesn't always ring true. Much of the text is sung, and the lithe and nimble Cole performs sinuous dances into which she sometimes draws the rotund and gracefully awkward Eckert.

    At the outset, I thought the prime dramatic impulse of And God Created Great Whales was clear and clever: the presentation of Nathan as a sort of Ishmael of the technological age?an innocent creative spirit who is both enabled and encumbered by the various machines he needs to "record" an epic journey he has taken in his mind. (Many color-coded tape recorders are scattered about the set, one for his opera's "master tape," another for his daily work, another for incidental notes and so on.) Occasionally, however, despite his gentleness, the piece seemed to present Nathan as a modern Ahab?a disabled monomaniac hell-bent on a quest of "self-completion" he is certain not to survive and is incapable of learning from. At still other times, Eckert's stately slowness, with his heavy, rubbery body and monumental bald head, seemed an obvious reference to the whale?an ineluctable, prepotent, natural force destined to crush all punily human efforts to circumscribe it. (In the piece's latter half, the Muse grasps petulantly after independence, transforming into a famous, retired opera singer who begs him to write a cameo role for her.)

    Frankly, though, I came to place very little stock in any of these interpretations. I found this piece confusing and hard to follow more often than not. The basic story of mental degeneration is certainly moving and accessible enough. ("In the end you will appear to remember nothing at all," says the taped voice. "Eventually you will forget how to breathe. One might say you will drown in your own ignorance.") Too often, though, the storytelling gets lost in the incomprehensibility of the operatically sung words, and behind layers of deliberate obscurity: the various unilluminating slippages in the Muse's identity, for instance, and abrupt insertions of dense passages from Melville (including digressions into such matters as sailors' cenotaphs). The net impression is of an opera manque about a confused man who fails to write an opera.

    The piece's musical impulse, on the other hand, is admirably lucid and confident. Eckert is an inventive and absorbing composer, whose pieces here range from a prickly calypso interlude to a rousing, sermon-like oratorio arranged around two organ chords to fascinating "ambient" piano phrases that subtly reflect Nathan's periodic mental regressions. He has a fine tenor voice, which he prefers to challenge and not merely show off, and listening to it is the main pleasure of And God Created Great Whales.

    Dance Theater Workshop, 219 W. 19th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 924-0077, through June 25.

    for colored girls... By Ntozake Shange I went to the 25th-anniversary production of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf?a legendary play I happen not to have seen before?with a friend who saw the original production. Afterward, I was treated to a philippic about how inferior this version is: how comparatively poor its use of dance is in regulating the piece's verbal and scenic rhythms, for instance. How much less urgency and immediacy its surprisingly mature cast brings to the various stories of struggling and assertive black women. How the thrillingly fresh and open poetic world Shange conceived is rendered cramped and unimaginative by Walt Spangler's dull and clumsy set (a grid of windows upstage topped by a catwalk and adorned with irrelevant Christmas lights) and George Faison's rudderless direction (dominated by pseudo-inventive business with a long purple cloth). I listened patiently to all this, certain that most of it was true and agreeing that the deficiencies of the show were obvious. Then I mentioned, to my friend's consternation, that I nevertheless enjoyed it. Having read the text, I was prepared for Shange's "choreopoem" to seem dated in itself, since it deals with subjects such as acquaintance rape and shame over teen pregnancy that seemed shocking in 1975 but are commonplace today, but this was mostly not the case. Because the work's large, painful emotions work much more from archetypes and courageously reworked stereotypes than from realism, they don't come off as responsible to any topical standard, and the bold, sensual energy behind the characters' pride and self-scrutiny reads as timeless.

    Furthermore, the form of for colored girls, in which music, rhythm, movement and sensuality are used as the ligatures of a new, "maimed" poetic language (Shange's word), is a marvelous innovation that is still more talked about than emulated on our stages. (Shange has some substantial followers?notably Suzan-Lori Parks?but how often are they seen at the likes of the American Place Theater?) Even in an imperfect production, there is still much power in this concept. All the performers in Faison's uneven cast warm to their roles during the 90-minute show, each ends up with at least one inspired sequence, and a few are exceptionally radiant and animated (chiefly Katherine J. Smith and J. Ieasha Prime), offering tantalizing glimpses of what for colored girls might have looked like (and might look like again) in its full glory.

    American Place Theater 111 W. 46th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 239-6200, through July 16.

    Current Events By David Marshall Grant Whereas the cast of for colored girls tends to be too precious about its hallowed words, the cast of David Marshall Grant's Current Events seems to suffer from the opposite problem?lack of faith in the material. There are certainly problems in this new play by the author of the 1998-'99 Off-Broadway hit Snakebit, but David Petrarca's oddly disconnected production exacerbates them. An ambitious liberal politician named Adam (Jon Tenney) long ago fathered an illegitimate son, Ethan (John Gallagher Jr.). Adam got his sister Diana (Christine Ebersole) to adopt Ethan, and convinced his whole family to maintain an absurd story he concocted about the boy's origins. As Adam is running for Congress in California, he's called back to his Connecticut home because Ethan?now an angrily intelligent 15-year-old who has taken his family's liberal pieties far more seriously than the adults?is on a hunger strike, and is in crisis over his burgeoning homosexuality and his suspicion that Adam is really his father, not his uncle. The family, including Adam and Diana's irritatingly bossy, bleeding-heart, wheelchair-bound mother Eleanor (Barbara Barrie), pulls the candidate toward full and sincere disclosure while his campaign pulls him toward phonier and phonier posturing. The plot turns on his decision whether to open up to Ethan, on Ethan's decision whether to eat and come out, and on the ambiguous role of Adam's suavely duplicitous aide-de-camp, Jamie (Jeremy Hollingworth).

    There is a general spuriousness to the action for which Grant is wholly responsible: Adam's character is too irredeemably glib and unimpeachably superficial, and it just won't wash that everyone maintained his lie all those years. Grant has nothing to do with the epidemic of indication on this stage, however; it was up to the director and the actors to flesh out their relationships and clarify their motivations and intentions with regard to each other. Fans of Snakebit are advised to let this ill-starred project pass (its admirably humane politics notwithstanding) and wait for the next piece by this provocative but still erratic actor-playwright.

    Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through July 16.