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The electric eclectic: A review of Rinde Eckert's 'Becoming...Unusual'

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Becoming...Unusual: The Education of an Eclectic

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Why every student of theatre and music wasn’t lined up at the doors of Segerstrom’s Off Center Festival 2014 to witness the bald and unabashed spectacle of Rinde Eckert’s latest one-man show, Becoming...Unusual: The Education of an Eclectic, is a looming question. One can only find answers in two places: firstly, a failure of effectively marketing him into a venue that is surrounded by conservatory schools and a UC that touts it has theatre and music programs; and secondly, a demographic of young people who have better things to do than behold their craft at work in the most astounding creative state -- the state of becoming. If you missed Rinde Eckert at the Samueli Theater, you missed out.

The unpacked house was a mishmash of elites, graduates and curiosity-seekers -- the cool cats of theatre-going -- the kind of crowd that might have explored Beckett in the early days. Some folks laughed, some left. Some got it (those were the ones who laughed) and some were clueless (those are the ones who stayed to the end, waiting to have an epiphany). The ones who left were those who already had a long day and whose endurance to sit longer than 90 minutes waned under their own weight atop cabaret bar stools.

What’s in a venue? Everything, as Eckert pointed out throughout the evening. The context of where art is seen, heard, and performed literally sets the stage for how many patrons of the arts perceive music and theatre. Case in point: Joshua Bell’s violin virtuosity performed at a D.C. Metro stop -- where he played for nearly an hour and collected a mere $32 in a primed tip hat. Thousands of people passed him by, not realizing that they were getting a $100 per person performance, had they been in the audience at Boston’s Symphony Hall a few nights earlier. Context is everything.

Billed as a one-man show, Eckert is really not all alone on stage: his dead father is largely with him -- projected larger than life -- and no doubt resonating through his son’s impressive voice that requires two hands to count his octave range.

Eckert is theatre: conceiving his piece, writing it, singing it, performing it, directing and producing it -- he is the ultimate virtuosic Renaissance star. He slides from primal sounds to perfunctory opera, from plucking strings to tinkling keys, from harmonica razzle to accordion dazzle. Eckert’s talent at playing instruments -- including vocalizations -- is breathtaking: indeed, his talent may even be taking his own breath away, as he scurries from one end of the stage to the other, picking up props and storytelling along the way.

Becoming...Unusual: The Education of an Eclectic, is a pastiche of monologue, music and mayhem, intertwined with philosophy, politics, religion and refined ramblings. Rinde Eckert is off-kilter -- and Becoming is a puzzle with the pieces strewn across the stage. His nervousness makes the audience ponder if he’ll ever find all the pieces, so he can put his performance all together and wrap things up with a satisfactory conclusion. But one finds out, quite along the lines of T.S. Eliot’s verse, “In my end is my beginning,” that the journey’s departure and arrival are points that circumambulate: “...and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Part Spaulding Gray, part Bertolt Brecht, Eckert is a rare commodity -- a nearly discovered, partially recovered creative surrealist soul who casually celebrates in his theatrical work all the ‘brave little men with big ideas’ -- the brazen Bozos who dare to think they matter in the grand scheme of things -- and then by their sheer audacity and presence, prove that they do matter -- or at least, have a voice. This is the warped and weirdly wonderful world of Rinde Eckert, Obie Award winner and finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

Eclectic? Yes, there’s plenty of it dished-out in sundry forms. A particularly stunning piece, for instance, was the song John Knows, which he crooned from the beyond while playing an electronic keyboard that he wore like a necktie. Contrast that with the bravado of his opera buffa selection from Mozart’s Così fan tutte and you’ll understand the breadth of what Eckert is all about. Mystical music flowed into primitive drum beats, lyrical chanting became a gushing of guttural animalistic dissonance. Yeah, this was pretty eclectic stuff.

Beyond his vocal intonations, Eckert is also an accomplished composer and musician, which he showcased well in Becoming... by playing everything from a steel pipe (which sounds like an aboriginal Anasazi flute) and a rusty euphonium to a couple of obsolete electronic keyboards and a collar of Tibetan bells. He cherished a host of seemingly useless instruments, paying homage to them one-by-one: There’s the out-of-tune misshapened guitar whose fret ignores the rule of 18; but with practice and finger prongs to accommodate the deviated gitbox, he later plucked a pleasing tune with aplomb by immersing himself into the instrument and becoming one with it. You’d have sworn that Ry Cooder just floated from the Delta into the theatre on a raft of resplendent riffs. Eckert’s simple message: All instruments, no matter how sour or seedy, can be played and produce beautiful music if you explore them and get to know them. Just like people. Not too sure if the vintage accordion is part of that sentiment -- because, well, it’s still an accordion. But that squeezebox was just a bellow-pull from the majestic concert Steinway, which he also played quite gracefully.

Like his commissioned play, Eye Piece, where the audience watches an unfolding drama that goes dark from time-to-time to emulate the progressive blindness of macular degeneration, Eckert thrusts his audience directly into the action -- and in the case of Becoming... the action is all about his own journey from the world of classic opera into the murky realm of the avant-garde, with stops along the way at theatrical summits that become dramatic plummets into an abyss of failure -- the exact spot where he finds his triumphs in life.

Eckert wants his audience to walk into the woods with him, explore the animus you may have never seen before. He's all about ignoring the stuff on the path -- it's what you already know. That's comfortable entertainment. He's not going to waste your time with tropes and structure. Where Eckert takes his audience, there's only the loose construction of the woods. A lot of trees, branching ideas -- a dark and sometimes frightening forest of thoughts. He wants you to follow along and fell the forest with him. From the experience of the exploration and through the pulchritude of his performance, you might be able to construct something sensational from the timber that he tears down as he delivers the truths of his life experiences.

As Becoming becomes itself, if you will, Eckert cleverly relates that he must rework his own life to make something out of it by trying to connect -- with us or something -- to pull together disparate elements to make something that has enough form that we don't leave; but his struggle is to keep the experience just loose enough that we learn while we watch. While he becomes, so do we.

And then we’re off to the races with a lesson on Shakespeare: Like one of his earlier theatre experiments, Romeo Sierra Tango, where Eckert portrays Romeo as a deluded putz covered in clay, Becoming... is, in many respects, Eckert resurrecting Romeo again: exposing him as a despicable, cowardly cad -- a fool of his own folly. Ah, Romeo is, indeed, the coward of the famous play, whilst Juliet is the noble hero. Eckert points out that Romeo’s method of suicide is the coward’s way out: Poison, while Juliet takes the noble knife to herself. There’s a larger discourse about how Romeo avenges the murder of his friend, Mercutio, who becomes apoplectic that his dear friend doesn’t defend his honor, resulting in a lethal attack that Romeo could have stopped. Romeo’s vile submission is a central theme to Becoming: Tragedy is borne from the disengaged and the self-absorbed. Eckert’s purging, purifying and cathartic chaos on stage is redemptive of not only Romeo, but Eckert’s own failures earlier in his career -- which is also an ongoing and central theme in the tale of Becoming....

A quick journey through the Bible near the end of the show is a bit tacked-on and rushed, as Eckert talks about how great Moses was, and then dispenses with all the crap that followed as part of our obviously inherited mythos. It’s a huge subject to bring up two hours into the show, with the clock ticking away as some audience members seek out a self-imposed potty break. Eckert does, however, take time to ponder and pay reverence to the magnificent metaphor of the cross. As man tries to reach for the heavens and ascend from the human condition, the cross shows us that we are nailed to the Earth, taunted by the silhouette of our dreams that are framed by the haunting blue welkin. It sounds like a definitive statement. But there’s more to explore.

After the standing ovation, there was a touching encore: dancing freely, like his Romeo wrapped in the shirts of the dead, Eckert performed to the sonorous recording of his opera singing father. He becomes his re-imagined version of Romeo, swaying to Mozart. Eckert left opera to explore -- to escape that world which his father thrust him into; he found solace in the abstract expressions of the avant-garde. And in his exploration, he also found the pain and love of his father and a vehicle to express opera in a forum and venue where one typically sees cabaret. Context is everything. He was not performing at the Metro. He blended cabaret moments into opera, using an eclectic mix of disparate instruments. The variety of instruments he proficiently played provided the harmonies of a life that is still trying to figure it all out by allowing the free expression of movement, sound, language, and silence -- all intermixing, dissolving, coalescing and commingling. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. But you can't know what works if you don't explore what doesn't. For the most part, Eckert's passions and expressions work well. He appears at the end, atop his prop desk, arms outstretched, vulnerable and open to his audience and the largeness of his father’s amplified voice. He is crucified -- metaphorically. And here, at this moment, the satisfying conclusion to a life exposed: Redemption is beyond the cross. Our bodies may be the corpus delicti, but our psyches take us to the promise of our myths -- the magic of our spirits, and the wonder of our souls.

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