When he's on stage, however, it's a different story. There--moving with planned grace or clumsiness, aiming his golden falsetto high into the ether above him, closing his eyes in some transforming reverie--he's a mesmerizing figure of a man, a powerful shaman. Earlier this season, he compelled attention in his two-hander And God Created Great Whales, during which he played a composer trying to complete an operatic adaptation of Moby Dick before losing a battle with his failing memory. That multi-layered piece was difficult to categorize. Was it a play? A recital? Performance art? It didn't matter. Whatever it was, it was magnetic, sorrowful, joyous, funny, and one of the season's outstanding entries.
Now, to follow that critical (if not entirely commercial) success, Eckert has been brought back by Alan Buchman and the Culture Project to reprise two earlier works. Under the umbrella title An Idiot Divine, he's doing--and doing with quiet beauty--Dryland Divine and The Idiot Variations, both pieces developed some time ago under other auspices. Considered along with And God Created Great Whales, these two works make a bold statement about the composer-writer-singer-actor's core belief: that music has redemptive powers. Music, he clearly wants understood, is crucial to humankind and must continue to be a part of everyday expression. It's through music that men and women rise above themselves.
Eckert's basic tenet is as simple as that, and the simplicity of his message is underscored (pun intended) by the simplicity of its presentation. A few slides with a quote from Yeats or the Bible and a prop or two are all he requires to help him make his point. In the first piece, Dryland Divine, a bucket of water, a scarf, a makeshift clerical collar on a hanger, and an accordion are the items he employs to sketch in his notion of how a convict named John Fletcher went about attempting to save his soul.
Eckert explains in a few prefatory sentences that the real-life Fletcher killed his brother. He thereby evokes a resonant similarity to Cain and Abel, of course. (It's the kind of element that, if not employed pretentiously, adds weight to a thesis.) According to Eckert's introduction, the murderer claimed to have been instructed by an angel that were he to sing on street corners with a red accordion, he'd find absolution. As Fletcher, Eckert follows instructions, rendering versions of "Down in the Valley" and "Amazing Grace"--the familiar words, but revised melodies--as well as a few wordless songs of great majesty. As he sings, Eckert uses a divining rod he's fashioned from the hanger to locate water, and is eventually triumphant.
In the second piece, The Idiot Variations Eckert arrives in a knitted cap, tunic, and trousers with a small chair and a number of instruments hanging from his shoulders. He's carrying a drum, a brass horn, bells, a guitar, and the red accordion he already used. After an opening solo on penny whistle, he refers to himself as an idiot and explains hastily that he's wondering from village to village in search of his home. Unsure where that is, he takes on various accents in which he makes amusing and/or disturbing remarks like, "I've come to believe my hands are at war with each other."
When he isn't extemporizing, he takes up each instrument in turn and plays it, gradually becoming lost in its capacities. As in Dryland Divine he chants a series of wordless numbers, making it seem that he's improvising them on the spot. Because Eckert has a gift as large as the planet for unexpected melody; the tunes he concocts are eerie, haunting, soothing. As one point, he picks up the horn but, rather than blow it, he begins slapping his palm on the mouthpiece. From this he builds a rhythmically percussive strain--strain without strain, it could be said.
Eckert's pieces, then, are existential. In each of the Idiot Divine monologues, he is a lost man trying to find something concrete, meaningful and life-affirming (e.g., water, a home) in a featureless terrain. It's as if he's trekking through Samuel Beckett territory (Giselda Beaudin's minimal set and lighting design is trenchantly Beckettian). Eckert, too, is waiting for Godot; and, while doing so, he could run into Vladimir and Estragon any minute. If their various paths were to cross, however, he'd be able to pass along a few words of advice. For, whereas Vladimir and Estragon only repeat themselves as they haunt their flat surroundings, Eckert's idiot has more constructive ideas about how to spend the heavy time in isolation: sing out loud and clear.
Something about the artist's place in society is also lodged inextricably in Eckert's work. In both halves, music and song are metaphors for artistic expression. In Dryland Divine, the conflation of singing with the discovery of reviving water emphasizes the importance of art to replenishing life. In The Idiot Variations, the musician calls himself an idiot; but he's certainly a wise and knowingly self-effacing idiot, because he makes something grand out of the few resources he has.
The playlets in An Idiot Divine are short--half an hour each, or maybe a little longer. As such, they don't pack the wallop of the later, multi-layered, and more mature And God Created Great Whales. But as Eckert tolls a tiny bell as the light fades on The Idiot Variations, it's apparent that his one-man offerings do say something important. The message that Rinde Eckert, an endearing Everyman and abundantly talented creator, delivers is this: We all have the innate ability to make others notice us. And, perhaps more importantly, we have the innate ability to notice and sustain ourselves.