Memory is a whale of an idea in Rinde Eckert’s ‘Moby Dick’
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., August 6, 2001) – For over a hundred years, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” – written in nearby Pittsfield and allegedly inspired by Mount Greylock -- has alternately influenced, puzzled and provoked other artists, prompting some to respond to it or engage with it in one form or another.
There have been numerous film and TV versions, most notably John Barrymore’s turn as Ahab in the 1930 film version and director John Huston’s 1956 film, with a script by Ray Bradbury and starring Gregory Peck as Ahab. There was even an ill-fated attempt to turn “Moby Dick” into a Broadway-style musical a few years ago by impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
More recent explorations of “Moby Dick” have come from cutting-edge artists like Laurie Anderson, with her experimental, multi-media version of the book, and by techno-rocker Moby, born Richard Melville Hall, a descendant of Melville’s who appropriated the name of his ancestor’s most famous creation.
The challenge of recreating Moby Dick as a dramatic character on a stage is what initially inspired Rinde Eckert, the performance artist, playwright and composer, to attempt his “And God Created Great Whales,” an experimental music-theatre piece which he will perform tonight and tomorrow night at Mass MoCA at 8.
Eckert conceived, composed and performs “And God Created Great Whales,” which recently won an Obie Award. The piece was produced by the Obie Award-winning Foundry Theatre and directed by David Schweizer. In addition to Eckert, who plays Nathan, a composer desperately trying to finish an opera based on “Moby Dick” before succumbing to a disease eating away at his mind, the show features Nora Cole, who plays an enigmatic, muse-like figure. Cole has performed on Broadway in the revival of “On the Town” and in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” among other credits.
The set and lighting design is by Kevin Adams, costumes are by Clint E.B. Ramos, and sound design is by James Rattazzi.
The piece, which Eckert calls an opera “in the sense that it has operatic grandeur,” opens with Nathan playing back a tape on a recorder strung around his neck. The tape reminds him who he is and what he is doing – that he is losing his memory but that his mission is to complete his magnum opus, an opera based on “Moby Dick.” He is told that the mysterious woman sitting in the corner is his muse and that she exists only in his mind, but also that he must listen to and heed everything she says.
Eckert’s music runs throughout the piece, and the performers sing and speak their dialogue. “Some of the music is very dramatic and operatic,” said Eckert, whose parents were both opera singers and who attended Yale University and the University of Iowa, where his father taught voice.
“Some of the singing is operatic, and some is not,” said Eckert. “There are also dialogues and monologues and interstitial music that’s ambient, sometimes foreground and background. But the music never stops, so in that sense it’s through-composed. Some of it sounds slightly Baroque, some more nineteenth-century figuration, some is folk music-oriented, so it traverses a number of different styles.”
Among the most obvious challenges Eckert faced when trying to conceive of how to bring “Moby Dick” to the stage was how to represent the title character.
“When you’re dealing with an adaptation of ‘Moby Dick,’ the first question is how do you approach the grandeur of the whale outside of the novel?” said Eckert in a recent phone interview.
“Cinema can approach some of that turmoil, but one of the reasons ‘Moby Dick’ hasn’t really been adapted for stage is the stagecraft can’t really equal the task. How do you approach the size of the creature’s mythic grandeur on stage?”
Plus, said Eckert, whales just don’t signify the way they used to – in the way they did at the time Melville wrote his book.
“There is a difficulty in approaching or mythologizing the whale in a contempoary milieu,” said Eckert. “In the nineteenth century, whales were largely mystical creatures who were hunted. They were still in the popular imagination. And Jacques Cousteau hadn’t done a documentary on whales yet.”
So instead of rendering the whale literally, Eckert abstracted the role that Moby Dick plays in the novel and found a metaphor for the search for the whale in memory itself.
“I needed something large and impressive that would have the size and weight of the whale, and memory seemed to serve that purpose,” siad Eckert. “When you evoke memory, it’s a huge whale of an idea that’s impossible to get a hold of, yet it’s so critical we use it every day. In that sense it’s like whale oil in the nineteenth century.
“Memory could be large in one’s imagination, and so in a sense by making this elusive creature into this huge abstract identity, I felt my chances of success were greater. It becomes the compelling analogy to draw us into the world of mythic grandeur.”
Eckert is not the only one who reverts to puns like “whale of an idea” when talking about his performance piece. In explaining why she chose “And God Created Great Whales” for Mass MoCA’s performing arts series, Rachel Chanoff, director of programming for Mass MoCA, said Eckert’s show fit in well with MoCA’s “Game Show” theme this season.
“What’s bigger game than Ahab hunting the whale?” said Chanoff. “It’s the big-game hunt, which fit in a broad way into our overall theme.”
Chanoff said the work also resonated with her personally. “The whole downtown performance world can be precious and inaccessible, but this is not,” said Chanoff. “It had humor, which is always a great way in, and it was referencing an iconic tale.
“It was funny, it was moving and it was about a really interesting idea about muses, and also about mortality. And as I hit forty it rang a personal bell.”
In addition to his work as a performer -- in solo works like “An Idiot Divine” and “Romeo Sierra Tango” and in collaborations with Steven Mackey (“Ravenshead”), Paul Dresher (“Slow Fire,” “Power Failure”) and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (“Breathe Normally,” “Shelf Life”) -- Eckert has recorded three CDs that combine folk music with his trademark, declamatory vocal style.
While “And God Created Great Whales” has been described as cutting-edge, Eckert says it is founded on some very traditional values. As such, he sees himself as more of a cultural centrist performing a balancing act rather than as a revolutionary storming the ramparts.
“It’s about a nineteenth-century novel, and so it owes something to the understandings of that century. But it’s also about a guy in a contemporary dilemma --the loss of memory, the loss of something great that’s disappearing from you, a set of aspirations or mythical constructs that are disappearing.
“I think there’s a great sense within our culture now that we don’t know how to honor tradition and still maintain progress …. It seems like people on the right are panicked by any innovation, and people on the left are skeptical of anything that trumpets a traditional value. It’s hard to find something in the center which maintains a kind of balance.
“I’m trying to stand in that strange place where I can accept some of the depth of sentiment and pathos and yet still maintain a sense of irony. And that’s a delicate balance sometimes.”
Tickets for “And God Created Great Whales” are $20 and are available from the Mass MoCA box office or by phone at 662-2111 or on line at www.massmoca.org.
In addition to the performances, director David Schweizer will participate in an informal, pre-curtain talk and look behind the scenes at the tomorrow at 6. Tickets for the talk are $5.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 10, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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