Theater archives

Salvation by Vaudeville


Arriving, in the usual manner of messiahs, just too late for the salvation of this year’s awards, comes what must, improbably, be called the season’s best musical. Not that Rinde Eckert’s Horizon is a musical in any of the accepted senses: “music-theater piece” would be the more reasonable designation. But Horizon‘s combination of a playful spirit and a deep inner passion supplies, at least to me, the joy with which musicals are supposed to send you home. Be forewarned: The passion involved is philosophical, and the spirit at play is the inquiring one that struggles to understand mankind’s place in the universe; Horizon is what might have resulted if Richard Foreman had written and directed Godspell—and haven’t you always wondered what that would be like?

Eckert plays Reinhart Poole, a minister who has just been sacked, for outspokenness, from his job teaching ethics in a theological seminary. The 85-minute piece takes place in his mind, during the dark hours before dawn, while he alternately prepares his farewell lecture and tinkers with a never-to-be-finished play, an allegory about two stonemasons perpetually dismantling the bricks of an old church for use in building a new one. Their task, like their author’s, is never-ending and bears multiple meanings. The two actors playing them, David Barlow and Howard Swain, also supply the other characters inhabiting Poole’s mind: his wife, his boss, his father, his brother who mysteriously vanished, and Satan. While the parables fly, memories crowd each other, and the evening, under David Schweizer’s slyly inventive direction, leaps in and out of several different modes of song. A table is laid and dismantled, chalk boards are marked up and wiped clean, and a wall of cinderblocks is built and rebuilt in a dizzying variety of forms. Beckettian vaudeville is the mode, but Beckett productions rarely offer this degree of zest or musicality. Eckert, with his lustrous eyes, gleaming bald dome, and big, ringing voice, is one of our theater’s most commanding presences; Barlow and Swain, as the masons, handle their many roles with aplomb even while (literally) doing the heavy lifting. Barlow’s devil is a particularly beguiling turn—he catches perfectly the tone of the truth-teller who always manages to make you suspect that he’s lying.