Thursday, June 07, 2007

New York: HORIZON and AN IDIOT DIVINE by Rinde Eckert

by Ben Brantley
New York Times, June 6 2007

God is in the curriculum in the lively lecture hall that has been made of the New York Theater Workshop, where Rinde Eckert’s “Horizon” opened last night. But even the fiercest secularist should find pleasure in this engaging performance piece, which is set in the seminary-without-walls of one man’s mind.

The furnishings of that mind will look familiar to anyone with a glancing knowledge of Christian philosophy in the 20th century. “Horizon,” directed by David Schweizer, is Mr. Eckert’s homage in song, sketch and rumination to Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), generally acknowledged as the most influential American theologian of his time.

Not that Reinhart Poole, the character portrayed by Mr. Eckert, is a biographical facsimile of Niebuhr, whose writings on the practical applications of Christianity to political conduct have been appropriated in recent years by both neoconservatives and liberals, including Barack Obama.

Mr. Eckert is less concerned with presenting the worldly details of his character’s life than with distilling the intellectual essence behind it. There are no equivalents in “Horizon” to the varying (and to some of his disciples, perplexingly varied) political stances adopted by Niebuhr during a career that lasted through and was shaped by the vicissitudes of World War II, the cold war and the Vietnam War — subjects on which Niebuhr had much to say.

Instead Mr. Eckert has deliberately placed his man of God in a sort of spiritual laboratory: a seminary, to be exact, where Poole has taught for 25 years and from which he is being forced to depart for ominous but unspecified reasons. “Horizon” is set on the day of his last class, which becomes in a sense his last day in an academic Eden, where theory is unchallenged and uncontaminated by practice.

This framework gives a grounding dramatic tension to a work that might otherwise float entirely in the clouds of cerebration. It is also an ideal structure to consider the worldview of a man who advocated what came to be called “Christian realism,” a theory that embraces the necessity of adaptation and the danger of absolutes in a universe of flux.

Mr. Eckert and Mr. Schweizer are faced with their own, appropriately Niebuhrian adaptive challenges, those of transforming the vapors of intellectual discourse into the flashy flesh of showbiz. How do you hold the attention of a nonacademic audience on subjects — ethics, God’s judgment, allegory, doubt — that Mr. Eckert regularly spells out in capital letters on a bank of blackboards?

Mr. Eckert’s felicitous discovery here is that Niebuhr’s philosophical approach translates naturally into theatrical terms. For Niebuhr, man always saw God through a glass darkly; you needed the interpretive tools of parable and allegory to begin to comprehend the ineffable, with the important caveat that the symbol must never be mistaken for the real thing.

Mr. Eckert’s rangy, magnetically restless Poole, assisted by two vivacious shape-shifting actors (David Barlow and Howard Swain), keeps these levels of intellectual awareness in play with the verve of a vaudevillian juggler. His instructional devices include a play-within-the-play, an eternally unfinished work by Poole about the construction of an eternally unfinished church; brisk story-theater enactments of parables and songs that vary in tone from hymnal to hillbilly, from barbershop harmonies to arias of anguish.

Occasional personal detours are integrated into the flow of ideas: remembered catechisms with Poole’s father (also a minister, as was Niebuhr’s) and mother; childhood arguments with the brother who later disappeared from his life (giving a visceral relevance to the tale of the prodigal son); admonitions from his long-suffering wife, who wants Poole to look up from his notes and see the sunset.

Some of the vignettes have the grating didactic preciousness of a “Sesame Street” for grown-ups. (Can you say “original sin,” boys and girls?) But Mr. Eckert, whose previous works have drawn inspiration from the knotty minds of W. B. Yeats and Herman Melville, is undeniably expert in anchoring elusive ideas to the point at which they become graspable. The forms he uses are often deliberately simple, precisely because the content is anything but.

The notion of allegory as a means of comprehension extends to Alexander V. Nichols’s set, a combination of construction site and classroom, with an assortment of cinderblocks, wooden planks and sheets of plastic, as well as the professorial blackboards.

The cinderblocks, those unpromising deadweights, become wondrously fluid elements of transformation, especially in a parable about the dangers of idol worship, which is what happens when symbol is mistaken for substance. This cautionary tale could be applied to the rigorously literal-minded of any faith and sets off unsettling echoes in this age of raging religious divisiveness.

In 2005 the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died earlier this year, wrote an essay in these pages suggesting that it was time to rediscover Niebuhr, a writer who warned against the dangers of nations that “try to play the role of God in history.” Without ever making specific political references, and keeping his character poised on the edge of active engagement, Mr. Eckert has invitingly and unobtrusively opened the door for such a reacquaintance.

At the same time, he finds vivifying parallels between the theological quest of one man and the theatrical quest to capture and illuminate life. In “Horizon,” the dynamics of art and religion are remarkably and nobly the same.


Created, written and composed by Rinde Eckert; directed by David Schweizer; sets and lighting by Alexander V. Nichols; sound by Gregory T. Kuhn; choreography by David Barlow; production stage managers, Chad Brown and Odessa (Niki) Spruill; assistant stage manager, Richard A. Hodge; executive producer, Susan Endrizzi. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Lynn Moffat, managing director. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 239-6200. Through July 1. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

WITH: David Barlow (Mason No. 1/Reinhart’s Wife/Reinhart’s Brother), Rinde Eckert (Reinhart Poole) and Howard Swain (Mason No. 2/Reinhart’s Mother/Reinhart’s Father).


by Anthony Tommasini
New York Times, Feb 20 2006

Rinde Eckert calls his career a "wonderful mistake." He started as a trained opera singer but found that discipline too confining for his free-roaming creativity. So he drifted into experimental theater in the San Francisco area. Over the years he has been an actor, librettist, director, avant-garde playwright and composer.

Among Mr. Eckert's admirers is the composer John Adams, who chose him to open the weekend festival called "In Your Ear Too" that he organized at Zankel Hall. On Friday night Mr. Eckert presented his two-part work "An Idiot Divine," an iconoclastic, category-smashing and often riveting piece of — well, I guess you'd have to call it performance art.

Part 1, "Dry Land Divine," loosely tells the tale of an evangelical minister in Wyoming in the 1950's who spends 14 years in prison for manslaughter. With his lanky frame clad in gray prison garb, Mr. Eckert became that prisoner, who passes time with an accordion and seems obsessed with water dousing. At first Mr. Eckert played soft, rippling repeated figures on the accordion over which he sang a textless, eerie chant. The music segued into a folkish waltz, which slowly disintegrated, sending Mr. Eckert's prisoner into an outburst of animalistic panting at once ferocious and hilarious.

At one point his plaintive chanting, through electronic processing, was turned into something quasi-medieval, with multiple voices singing in astringent parallel lines. Mr. Eckert's music here was mostly intended, it seemed, to create effects and tap primal feelings. Yet there were wonderfully strange sounds to enjoy, as when Mr. Eckert banged clanky rhythmic patterns with metal sticks on a bucket, alternated with gentle whooshes of stirred-up water.

In Part 2, the more abstract "Idiot Variations," Mr. Eckert plays the village idiot who imagines himself a mystic, dressed in the ragged white robes of an Indian sage with a string of Tibetan bells hanging from his neck. It would have been easy here to slip into the cliché of the mentally unhinged outcast who spouts spiritual wisdom. But despite the length of the piece (45 minutes), Mr. Eckert's wild imagination mostly kept you entertained, amazed and, quite often, moved.

One moment he would sing a weird amalgam of opera, be-bop, click-clacks and nonsense. In the next he would hold a wordless argument with himself by speaking through the mouthpiece of a baritone horn to produce two distinctive and all too recognizably human voices: one high-pitched and whiny, the other huffy and officious. Though there were clever verbal riffs in "The Idiot Variations," as when the character gave explanations of the specific function of each finger on the human hand, most of the work conveys the idiot's poignant attempts to communicate through only sounds and singing.

To appreciate Mr. Eckert's piece, you have to adjust to his surreal sensibility. An enthusiastic though not large audience did just that. Thank goodness Rinde Eckert abandoned an opera career.


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