“What if the mind is a kind of digital code that can be encrypted in music?” wonders Nathan, Rinde Eckert’s character in his two-person musical play about a piano tuner/composer who’s losing his memory. His doctor has told him: “You will forget.” There are steps and stages, but in the end, “you will forget to breathe.” Before then, Nathan wants to complete his opera, And God Created Great Whales, based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. If he can do it, the art would be a cenotaph, he says, and would “revive my mind in the mind of the listener.” So, with the help of his Muse, he pursues his white whale across the roaring wastes toward deathless death, “still chasing thee, though still tied to thee.”
Nathan cunningly stretches out his time by making himself a set of helps. His grand piano is papered with sticky notes, as are the various boxes and crates stowed beneath it—the piano, large like the man, is his reflection; it is his instrument, his pulpit, his ship, his whale; massive, stalwart, perhaps unconquerable. Around his neck, around the room, across the top of the piano, a series of color-coded tape recorders allow him to continue to make and record music and thoughts, after he’s played the first one and been reminded of his name and his task. But it is his Muse who drives him on. She’s a product of his imagination, the tape reminds him, and he should trust her implicitly on all artistic matters (but not on food or cooking).
Of all the components of Nathan’s mind, the Muse lasts the longest. The last vestige of his memory glows with her creative fire. Played with passionate luminosity by Nora Cole, the Muse appears first in red, with feathers in her hair and a ukulele in her hands, and later in white furs and diamonds in her Diva guise. She coaxes, leads, prods, pushes, entices and argues with Nathan, moving him through the cycles of dark forgetting into the acts and scenes leading toward the inevitable end of work and life. The Muse wants to be in charge—she wants a cameo for the Diva—and the play’s most moving moments come when the artist asserts his authority over his own creation, having remembered just in time that the Muse is his, just as the opera is. It doesn’t need her pretty singing, and he’s the man to say so.
This coupling of memory with creativity’s muse is only one of the many wise aspects of this work—a play about making an opera while losing one’s mind that is in itself an opera, in the sense of being a total work of art. The music, although fragmentary, has passages of real beauty and drama; the singing by both Cole and Eckert is extraordinary (Eckert’s range is very wide); their dancing, Eckert’s especially, surprised me into a kind of holy elation. The costumes (Clint Ramos) are not numerous, but are precisely right, and the shifting colors of the lighting (Kevin Adams) made the experience like being inside a giant mood ring.
Directed by David Schweizer, this PRC2 production is the latest in a series of revivals of the work first presented in 2000, and it would seem that age has only made it better than it could have been before its creator began to forget little things here and there. I probably should not do this on the 10th of January, but I will wager that And God Created Great Whales with its warm humanity will remain at the top of my year’s list of performance experiences when dark December cycles round again.
And God Created Great Whales continues at PRC2 in the UNC Center for Dramatic Artonly through Sunday, January 13, 2013. For tickets, http://www.playmakersrep.org