Brainwaving but drowning

A drama about a man's interpretation of 'Moby Dick' is a sharp study of artistic obsession

Avant-garde performance artist the Iowan, Rinde Eckert, has been widely celebrated for his multimedia work with the Paul Drescher Ensemble, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. His forays into opera and musical theatre have been part of a self-proclaimed mission to make theatre more "fiercely interdisciplinary". In the 75-minute, award-winning two- hander And God Created Great Whales, directed by David Schweizer - "the PT Barnum of the avant-garde" - Eckert plays Nathan, a piano tuner and composer dying of an unspecified, Alzheimer's-like disease, who is striving to complete an opera based on Melville's Moby Dick.

Nathan is slowly losing his mind, and Whales traces his spiritual quest to write his life's magnum opus as he futiley rages against his condition and tries to fire his imagination from notes he has taped on various tape recorders; one hung around his neck and duct-taped to his waist, others hanging from the ceiling above a solitary piano. Each tape recorder serves a separate function - one is for musical inspiration, the other intended for philosophical ruminations and so on.

He presses play and his voice comes through the speakers, reminding him of what is happening, what he has to do, and how he is to proceed. The instructions insist that he follow the advice of his muse, a mysterious woman who goads him and occasionally inspires him. The role of the muse is played by Nora Cole, an actress who has already found acclaim for her Broadway performance in the revival of On The Town, and Jelly's Last Jam, opposite Gregory Hines.

Clearly indebted to Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape - and its treatment of time, identity, memory and experience - and Brecht's Galileo, Whales draws the audience into the complex philosophical themes of Melville's novel - primarily the function of metaphor - through the tragicomedy of the hero's increasing bewilderment as he obsessively plays and replays back his notes, flailing amid symbols and hidden meanings. Nathan hopes the opera will a conduit for his immortal soul, but time is running out.

Eckert, a classically trained singer and the son of opera singers, throws in tenor and mezzo-soprano arias, baroque melodies, Tom Waits-style "word jazz" and Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy to depict the fragmented mental state of a balding, stocky, middle-aged genius who can isolate shards of his talent, but not fit them into a meaningful artistic whole.

Melanie Joseph, artistic director of the New York Foundry Theatre Company, which first staged And God Created Whales, has described Eckert's performance as presenting "multitextual layers of consideration, so that his character is fractalised by the nature of the work itself". Like Captain Ahab, Nathan's manic obsession for truth is fatally doomed. He is a man who "will drown in his own ignorance".

And God Created Whales, Barbican Pit, London EC2 (0845-120 7518; www.barbican. org.uk/bite) from Tuesday

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