It is rare that a new musical production appears; beautifully crafted and perfectly executed. And God Created Great Whales is just that. This two-person play is the story of Nathan (Rinde Eckert) and his muse Olivia (Nora Cole) and their creation of a Moby Dick opera. Olivia is Nathan’s fantasy, inspiration and musical partner. She is also often all that is left of his mind. Nathan is suffering from a rapidly progressing form of memory loss.
The stage is set with several cassette tape recorders, post-it notes, and flashcards. Evidently, Nathan in the first throes of his illness created effective prompts for the future diminished Nathan. Through much of the play Nathan wears a recorder around his neck, duct taped to his waist. Each session at his piano starts with listening to the tape. He must listen to more and more of these previously recorded reminders as to who he is and what he’s doing as the play progresses. It would be unbearable to watch if not for the rich bursts of lush operatic score that emerge. The opera is the play within the play and allows for ravishing duets and solos.
There is also much humor in the play. But its true Amazonian strength is its flawless storytelling. What could be a depressing and predictably sentimental theme is made beautiful and inspiring. There is simply no separating the performers from the performance in this production. Eckert and Cole are mature actors completely immersed in their characters. They move like trained dancers, in and around each other on the thrust stage. Eckert is also the creator of the play (and score) as well as the sound designer. The sound design of this production is worthy of its own review. It would be overstating to suggest that the sound is a third character in the play. The lighting (John Torres, Caleb Wertenbaker) and costuming (Clint Ramos) add a great deal to the very exposed and intimate stage. But it is the fluidity and high production value of the sound that are the most essential.
Directed by David Schweizer, there is a wholeness to this play that is rarely seen on or off-Broadway. There is not a whiff of anything forced, or a moment that doesn’t exist to propel the story forward. The structure of the storytelling is very traditional which leaves room for great innovation. (This alchemy is similar to that of Passing Strange (2008) and Unnatural Acts (2011.)) Both actors are on stage for 90 minutes and at every moment are completely mesmerizing . My only complaint is I often could not watch both of them at once. There is much to linger with this play; the fragility and resilience of the mind, the mysteries of the creative process, the many means to an end. But what will stay with me is a paragon of musical theatre.
Playing at Culture Project until March 25th.