Memory as Muse at PRC2: Rinde Eckert’s AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES

Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole in Eckert's AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES. Photo courtesy PlayMakers Rep.

Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole in Eckert’s AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES. Photo courtesy PlayMakers Rep.

“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

3 plays–from hell to angels–continuing this weekend

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. HSN | TR

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR

In Raleigh, an impressive production of August, Osage County by Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh.

Under the intelligent, well-timed direction of Eric Woodall, August: Osage County examines three generations of an extended family at a time of particular crisis, even for them. Osage County stretches north and west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Kansas line, and is the kind of place on the plains where people find either contentment or the overwhelming urge to be somewhere else. The

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. HSN | TR.

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR.

family’s story is introduced by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Phil Crone), as he interviews a young woman to live in and help around the house. He explains the situation: he drinks; his wife takes pills. One doesn’t cause the other, he says, it is just how it is, and they don’t interfere with each other’s habits. The habits, however, are detrimental to orderly housekeeping.

Read the my full review on CVNC. The show, in the lovely Fletcher Opera Theater, closes Dec. 9.

In Durham, at my hometown art house, troublesome weirdness acted with verve:

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites’ Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a mutable play by Jeffrey M. Jones, was the initial show presented by Manbites Dog Theater in the days of its bold youth, 1987, in its first awkward space at 343 West Main Street in Durham. It’s an unsettling series of short scenes that may be put together in any order the director desires, but no matter how it’s ordered, it’s not a play you can pigeonhole — making it an excellent introduction for the new, oddly named company. No one, of course, had any expectation that 25 years later Manbites would have its own building and be celebrating an unbroken quarter-century of weird and wonderful new plays. These have been years of huge change in Durham, but this funky little theater (that makes the eagle grin on every dollar it can get) has provided continuity, and community, along with the challenging art.

Read my full review on CVNC. Show closes Dec. 15.

And in Chapel Hill, a delightful, high production value version of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.  This review was first published Dec. 4 in The Indyweek, appearing in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio PlayPhoto: Jon Gardiner

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill  at Radio Station WPRC, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company holiday  production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

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Ray Dooley in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

The onslaught of holiday plays and concerts is upon us, and the roster includes many regular favorites (or yawners, depending), but this year PlayMakers Repertory Company offers an old favorite in a charming new guise. It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1947 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, for all its many merits and despite its condemnation of capitalist greed, is awash in sentimentality. This adaptation by Joe Landry is not. Sure, there’s some, but just a dusting atop a layer cake of real feeling. I went in expecting to be entertained and came away nourished.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play segues smoothly from the introductory “radio play” section with the five actors “reading” the many parts behind microphones, into a very active stage play in which the actors convert the few chairs and props into whatever’s needed. Along with composer/ musician Mark Lewis on piano, the cast also provides sound effects. Seeing how they make them in no way lessens their impact, even while the sight reminds us of the artfulness of what we experience. The play and this particular staging are unusually effective at exposing the artifice underpinning the theatrical experience without diminishing its magic.

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PRC’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo: Jon Gardiner

McKay Coble’s wonderful set for WPRC/ Bedford Falls is as much a character as any other, and Burke Brown’s lighting brings its many aspects to life. Todd Lawson, making his first PlayMakers appearance, is very moving as George Bailey, while MFA students Brandon Garegnani and Maren Searle give delightful performances as the angel Clarence and the lovely Mary Bailey, respectively. Durham actress Katja Hill shows her impressive range in several parts, from the child ZuZu to the vamping Violet. Ray Dooley also takes on many roles, including the mean old Mr. Potter, but as the radio announcer, he’s bright as brilliantine. This show’s highly recommended if you need to recharge your belief that yes, in spite of everything, it is a wonderful life.

The show runs through Dec. 16.

Dooley blazes through the fog of war in PRC2’s AN ILIAD

Ray Dooley as The Narrator in AN ILIAD. Photo: PRC/Jon Gardiner.

We think of Homer as the first bard, the beginner of dramatic storytelling. But storytelling is as old as dirt: ancient, the collected dust of time that retains the human imprint. From dust to dust we go, and from the dust we live on as stories. Ray Dooley as The Narrator in the bleak ruins of An Iliad seems beyond time, even as he relates the story of Homer’s Iliad, the mighty battles just before the sack of Troy. Dooley drifts on to the stage, looking like any aging white guy who’s been on the road for a few hundred thousand years, his ragged clothes the colors of brush, dried mud and sweat. He stumbles around the dirt and debris onstage, mumbling in Greek, trying to remember what story he’s on for tonight.

The Narrator finally beckons to someone in the front row for a program and sighs upon reading it. He’s a tentative teller, doesn’t really want to go into all that again. Rage. Hubris. Blood. Warriors at war. Women on the ramparts, watching. The interference of the gods. Character in the face of inescapable destiny. Yet he is fated to tell that story yet again, and you know this fate will go on forever. He is at the mercy of the Muse.

The Narrator may be reluctant, but playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare are very eager. They want us to know the now of the story, as well as its everlastingness in the long litany of wars, and give The Narrator many contemporary examples to convey understanding of how big and how long this famous battle really was, and ways to understand on our own terms some of the emotions that drove it.

Dooley, working with guest director Jesse Berger, makes these explanatory interludes some of the most intimate and excoriating moments of the play. And, of course, these are the moments that make the production a play, rather than a storytelling session. It is hardly surprising that An Iliad won a special citation for this combination at the 2012 Obie Awards.

High-intensity Dooley. Photo: PRC/Jon Gardiner.

Ray Dooley is surely the most accomplished of the many fine actors working in this area, and this is a rare opportunity to  see him working alone on the stage. He is superb in ensembles, but here he performs the special feat of maintaining his time-travelling Narrator and the nuances of The Narrator’s weary emotions, while simultaneously evoking the story’s protagonists and their dusty, blood-soaked world. Agamemnon and Priam, Hector and Patroclus and Achilles—and Achilles’ various armaments—vivify before us. Made only of words, they roar and dazzle and awe.

This short run of An Iliad that opens this PRC2 season follows the marvelous Penelope that closed last season’s run of new plays in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre. Playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin turned The Odyssey inside out in an innovative contemporization of the ancient story. She also maintained her modern Penelope’s character while evoking others, but she also added a breathtaking layer of complication by at times becoming the Chorus, singing lines she’d just spoken elsewhere on stage, to musical accompaniment. For An Iliad, there’s no live music, but several pieces of delicate and haunting sound by Ryan Rumery that re-sensitize one to the violent story. Seth Reiser’s well-considered lighting also helps keep us a little off-balance and emotionally available to its power, as The Narrator unfolds it in Marion Williams’ costume and set.

An Iliad is a very tight piece of theatrical work, and a powerful beginning for the fall theater season. It is most highly recommended. Maybe we will get really lucky and PRC will bring it back in rotation with Penelope, but don’t hold your breath. This show closes Sun., Sept. 9.

The shows of PlayMakers Rep’s second stage, PRC2, are presented in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art.

This review was first published Sept. 7, 2012, in The Artery of indyweek.com.

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