Rinde Eckert is a classic overreacher. He is a polymorph. He is the Electric Eclectic. At the American Repertory Theatre, they just call him " The Source. " In recent years, he has drawn wider and wider attention as a writer, composer, singer, actor, and director of new music theater. His latest creation, a theatrical riff on Homer’s Odyssey titled Highway Ulysses, receives its world premiere at the ART starting this Saturday.
Eckert has been working in the undervalued field of experimental music theater (sometimes called new opera) for more than 25 years. Raised in a family of musicians and trained as a classical singer, he started his career in San Francisco, where he met the composer Paul Dresher, with whom he has collaborated on a dozen pieces. Over time, it became important to him to write music as well as texts for his pieces, many of which are solo or duo performance works. Several are inspired by classics of Western literature. Dante’s Comedia, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Romeo and Juliet all provided points of departure for Eckert pieces in the 1990s. Then came And God Created Great Whales (2000), the piece that made New York’s downtown theater crowd sit up and take notice. In it, Eckert plays an eccentric piano tuner named Nathan who is desperate to finish an opera based on Melville’s Moby Dick before he succumbs to a degenerative disease that is short-circuiting his memory. The piece won an Obie and triggered comparisons with another musical hybrid, Laurie Anderson, who had done her own spin on Moby Dick just a year before.
Highway Ulysses is a fever dream with music. Its focus is a mysterious American war veteran who’s on a long journey home to claim the son who knows him only as a mythic hero. His progress is slowed by a series of encounters with oddball characters and by a car crash that leaves him hovering between life and death. Written and composed by Eckert, the piece is performed by an ensemble of four musicians, the Cambridge-based Empty House Cooperative, and a cast of eight singer-actors that includes Eckert and features ART veteran Thomas Derrah in the title role.
The production marks Robert Woodruff’s first directing project since becoming ART’s new artistic director last summer. " When I saw how the rest of this season was taking shape, " Woodruff explains, " I thought maybe it would be best if we did an original music piece. And then I was at BAM watching Robert Wilson’s piece on Edgar Allan Poe with music by Lou Reed, and I thought, ‘Rinde writes good songs. Maybe I will do a piece and Rinde will write songs.’ " That impulse led to a year-long collaboration between Woodruff and Eckert as they built the play from scratch. " This is the first time in a long while that I have worked so intensely from the beginning with a director, " Eckert says. " Woodruff has been there every step of the way. "
Along that way, the piece has evolved and changed a great deal. " I didn’t want to make this piece about war in particular, " Eckert continues. " It didn’t start out being about the Odyssey at all. It started out being about a spiritual journey across America that results in a series of revelations and a religious epiphany. " But once Homer came into play, Odysseus’s identity as a returning war veteran made its own demands, as did the need to address the pall that’s fallen over America since September 11 and the more recent looming threat of war with Iraq.
As the script took shape, Eckert and Woodruff discovered the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist who works with Vietnam War veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Shay’s books Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming became a point of reference that, as Woodruff says, " helped us to realize that we had to ground the play in some real sense of veritas in terms of vet life. " The piece became more and more, in Eckert’s words, a cautionary tale about " the violence that people bring home from war. It is a little bit like, ‘You clean up Dodge and then you get run out of town.’ The very qualities that make it possible for you to clean up Dodge are the very qualities a civilized society cannot afford: someone who is too certain of their rectitude, too certain of their phantoms, too certain of the existence of enemies. "
Two weeks before opening, minor changes were still being made in Highway Ulysses, but for Eckert and Woodruff the play has found its center and its shape. " I was watching it the other day, " says Woodruff, " and I went, ‘This is like a great independent film.’ There is an odd little world here that has its own rules, and people are just slightly off. There is an unbalance in everyone and a great sense of isolation and a great hunger and also a great sense of protection. And sometimes it comes out very funny or very sad. It all seems oddly normal, in an abnormal way, which I like. "
Highway Ulysses will be presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center March 1 through 22. Tickets are $34 to $68; call (617) 547-8300.