And God Created Great Whales
nytheatre.com review by J. Scott Reynolds
February 9, 2012
Any adaptive treatment of Moby-Dick has a beast to contend with equal to the novel’s monstrous namesake. The chapter-length ruminations, the Homeric cataloguing of whales and whale-parts, and the breathless descriptions of a whaling vessel’s hull are more than informative filler from which a plot can be safely excised; they make up a cosmos where human ingenuity is dwarfed by a vast and unknowable natural world. A limping sea captain’s pursuit of an indestructible white whale takes on tragic salience against this backdrop. Moby-Dick’s otherwise simple storyline has been made into at least three normal-length screenplays and more than one stage play, but stripped of Herman Melville’s seeming descriptive excess, the results are often surprisingly bloodless (the 1956 film penned by Ray Bradbury being a case in point).
Culture Project’s revival of And God Created Great Whales (originally commissioned and produced by The Foundry Theatre) suggests that experimental theater, which favors theme over plot, may be a better vehicle for Melville’s sprawling masterpiece than Aristotelean shoe-horning. By making Moby-Dick a subplot, creator/composer/performer Rinde Eckert gets around the proven difficulty of condensing his source material. The central (if loose) narrative of And God Created Great Whales is that of a disease-stricken composer, Nathan, racing against the deterioration of his mind to complete an opera version of Moby-Dick. The outsized ambition of Nathan’s undertaking comfortably parallels the crew of the Pequod’s white whale-trek, and as Nathan alternately composes and reflects on his work, he periodically steps into his opera, embodying various incidental and main characters: Briefly a wide-eyed Ishmael, then a drunken rabble of furloughed sailors, then a thundering Father Mapple, then a whale-oil vendor; then, increasingly, as Nathan’s disease and opera careen toward their respective climaxes, a staggering, brooding Captain Ahab.
Eckert is joined and bolstered in his story-telling by actress Nora Cole, and the combined performances are marvels of economy, craft, and rambunctious humor. From the first view of Eckert’s hulking frame slumped over a piano, his impressive, shaved cranium lifting for an occasional whisper while he taps searchingly at the keyboard, a tortured hunt has been set in motion. His close-fitting gray suit, fit-but-lumbering physicality, and shining pate are a bit reminiscent of a whale, his very presence a leitmotif for the grave and weighty forging ahead that occupies much of the novel and that struggles for prominence in Nathan’s opera. The more diminutive Ms. Cole is a birdlike, darting counterpoint. Clad in a bright red dress and fiery tresses suspended from her coiled hair (costume designer Clint Ramos’s simple efficacy is a great asset to this production), she acts initially as a muse, prodding Nathan to focus on his work while assuming the opera’s characters with bold, Brechtian mechanics. There are some dazzling moments when she and Eckert momentarily swap energies, a high point occurring when, playing the entire crew, Cole directs Pip, the “black Alabama boy with the tambourine,” to sing for them; then tosses a tambourine to Eckert, who instantly seizes the role by sliding to his knees, drumming an African rhythm on the quavering tambourine with his fingers, and singing a falsetto rendition of “Oh Shenandoah” while staring ahead with child-like abandon. On the night I attended, the audience initially broke into laughter, then became transfixed as Eckert persisted through four forlorn verses. The moment was strange, moving, and engrossing in its exuberant superfluity: Not unlike the novel to which the performance pays tribute.
The adaptive process itself provides another thematic strand as Cole’s muse character begins challenging Nathan’s approach to his material. Through the remembered persona of Olivia, a retired opera star with whom Nathan once became enamored while tuning her piano, she argues for “a cameo,” a moment of grace and lift provided by the lowering of a lyric soprano into the Pequod’s dour hull. “There are no comforting visions!” he protests, insisting that Moby-Dick is all “tearing of the carcass, lancings, bleeding.” The dialectic is unresolved by the end of the piece’s eighty minutes; and while Nathan, at the end of his journey, appears as bedraggled and beaten down as any Ahab, a final grace note is sounded, an affirmation that art can soothe and provide escape as surely as it can rage and size up demons. And God Created Great Whales is a moving homage to the romantic in art. Executed with consummate skill and intuition, it is also a wonder to behold.