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

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

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

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

colored girls…
Ntozake Shange

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.

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

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

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