Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2001
I see an awful lot of traditional, realistic, proscenium-bound theatre, so when the opportunity arises to see something that promises a change, I go for it. While And God Created Great Whales was performed in conventional, fourth-wall style, that was the only thing conventional about it. Like my pilgrimage to see the Thunder Bay Ensemble last month, this evening was a refreshing change of pace from the standard summer theatre fare in the Berkshires. Here I had the privilege of watching world class artists perform a piece they had created and believed in passionately.
Rinde Eckert, the writer, composer and performer of this piece, plays Nathan, a man who is slowly sinking in to dementia. His memory is going. Eventually he will even forget how to breathe and “drown in his own ignorance.” Thus begins his race against time and nature to complete his opera based on Moby Dick before it is too late. In order to keep working as the disease progresses, Nathan has recorded various instructions, ideas, philosophical ramblings, etc. on several color coded cassette tape recorders – one of which he wears around his neck and duct-taped around his waist.
His only aid and accomplice as he drifts in and out of reality is a figment of his imagination, played by Nora Cole, created in the image of the woman of his dreams. The tape recorder tells Nathan that she is “infallible” when it comes to matters of literature, art, and music, but not to listen to her advice on cooking or other more earthly matters.
The other day I was listening to an interview with a well-known painter who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I was curious to learn whether he had retained his ability to paint as he lost what we consider his conscious mind and memories. I have always pondered whether some remnant of the mind and soul remain hidden beneath the ravages of such a disease. In this case the answer seemed to be no. This man had lost not only his ability to create art, but his interest in it as well. “I suppose I stopped painting when my work stopped being good,” he said. He had l lost the will to create and yet remained fettered by some arbitrary idea of “good art.”
Eckert’s Nathan clings to his creation as tenaciously as Captain Ahab clings to his pursuit of Moby Dick. At one point Nathan sings about Ahab’s memory of his missing leg. I have heard that amputees often can “feel” the missing limb as if it were there. Eckert implies that dementia victims too have some memory of their memories even after they are gone.
Eckert and Cole both sing beautifully in vocally demanding roles. The sound design of James Rattazzi is complex and seamless. It is impossible to tell when instrumental or vocal music is being performed live or whether it is recorded. Such an illusion is all in the timing. Recorded music must be perfectly synchronized with the performers’ actions.
It is not surprising to learn that Kevin Adams designed both the set – a maze of hanging wires with light bulbs, tape recorders, pipes, and other flotsam and jetsam attached – and the impressive lighting. Adams uses brilliantly colored light to reflect the moods and madness that grips Nathan’s mind. Even white light and the black absence of light become vivid colors in Adams palette.
The entire team on this Obie Award-winning production have outstanding international performance/production credentials as well as impressive educational backgrounds. MoCA has brought to North Adams the brilliant professional cusp of avant garde, multimedia theatre. The performance I saw was very well attended and Eckert and Cole were called back for four curtain calls before a standing crowd. There is an audience for alternative theatre in north Berkshire. Next time I hope MoCA gives such talented artists more than two nights to fulfill the interest and desire of that audience.
The Foundry Theatre production of And God Created Great Whales was performed at 8 p.m. on August 10 & 11, 2001 in the Hunter Center Theatre at MASS MoCA. The show ran about 80 minutes without an intermission. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111 or click through to their Web site.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001