Theatre Review: Moby Dick

p1060195Classics.  We know those well-loved story lines: the star-cross lovers, Romeo & Juliet; the romantic out-cast, Cyrano; the hero-king Arthur, and his knights; the separated-at-birth twins, Luke and Leia Skywalker… and, the obsessive revenge of Captain Ahab against the White-Whale, Moby Dick.  When we read that Arena Stage would produce a stage version of Herman Melville’s classic 19th century whaling story, I thought that I might want to read the book first.  I could not image how they would present a whale on stage, nor the language of Melville.

p1060197By circumstance, I noticed a paper-back copy of Moby Dick on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf at her childhood home.  By the lack of cover and tattered pages, I suspect that she, her husband, and all of her sons must have read it numerous times over summer vacations at the beach.  I read about a quarter of it before I found a hard-bound version at a used-book store.  That seemed a safer way to wade my way through about 600 pages of 18th-19th century whaling history and technique.

What I found was that for about 100 pages of text, 90 are descriptions of minute details of ships, sailors, the oceans and ports, nautical techniques and customs, p1060200etc., and about 10 pages of action.  By the time we saw the Arena Stage version of the story, I had read about half the book.  Captain Ahab only made occasional appearances and the White-Whale was only rumored to have been seen by other ships within the past couple of years.  I have a way to get to the action of the novel.

Using prose, poetry, or history sources for stage productions is not new.  Shakespeare and his buddies took liberty with Ovid, Plutarch, and various English histories for ideas that we associate with Elizabethan plays.  Most contemporary novelist’s agents appear to have movie rights ready for studios to sign (I’m sure that Dan Brown’s agent is in touch with Tom Hank’s agent for the next art-history-geek-detective-heart-throb-thriller as you read this), sometimes before the flash-drive has been delivered to the editor for review.  Sales of the books anticipate spikes when the movie opens.  Often, those who saw the movie are disappointed with the book, and those who read the book wonder why the screenwriters decided to emphasize this or that point, and drop out their favorite scenes.  Thus, I wondered how David Catlin would adapt the 600 pages of text into a 2 hour play.

Arena Stage used their proscenium arch stage, the Kreager Theatre, for Moby Dick.  As we entered, we could see the full stage area.  Center stage stood a raised platform with planking atop a rocky base.  Engulfing this were eight arches of metal tubing, appearing to be ribs  from inside a whale.  Flanking the wings of the stage were various ropes and rigging, filling out the sense of being aboard a ship.  I was engaged in the concept.

However, the music sounded as if the sound-tech guy/gal had plugged in his/her iPod on random hits of a generation of music that I do not spend much time listening too.  Not only did I not recognize any of the tunes, I did not see the relevance of contemporary pop music to a 200-year-old nautical theme.  Maybe I’m just biased that a concertina and hornpipe would have been more fitting.

The opening scenes brought me back to that stage.  James Abelson, introduced himself as Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, and allowed the elegance of Melville’s prose to flow, like the ebbing tide that beckons us to the sea.  This image, of the muse of the sea calling, will carry throughout the play, with three Fates (Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasy Foster), floating across the stage in their Puritan hoop skirts and bonnets.  At various points, they will be sailors widows in Nantucket, whales in the ocean, and various sea creatures of unclear origin or purpose.  The further out to sea the ship sails, the less hoop-skirted the women would become, somewhat like a Lady Gaga concert…

Soon, we meet the tattooed South Pacific islander, Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), various sailors and captains (Micah Figueroa, Walter Owen Briggs, Raymond Fox, and Javen Ulambayar), and Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue).  For the first 55 minutes of the show, the script followed the sections of text that I had read fairly closely. Those 10 pages of action mostly occurred, though the detailed whaling hunting scenes are compressed into one composite episode in the second half of the program.  Again, I was pleased that the script used Melville’s language, which conveys the beauty of the sailing tradition.  There were two brief, but notable scenes which were either not in the section of the book which I have read, or contradictory to what Melville had written.

Most of the first half of the play established the characters and set the scene for the hunt of Moby Dick in the second half.   However, I noticed that the pace of the play accelerated in a manner that Melville has not yet done in the portion of the book that I have read.  The director began to emphasize action over the dialogue.  And, the wide range of themes that Melville describes of whaling traditions became singling focused on hunting Moby Dick.  Maybe the book will go that way eventually, but this was somewhat like repeating the same paragraph of text for 30 minutes, just louder each time.

The second half was dominated by spectacular theatrical effects.  Lines, block-and-tackle lifted Nantucket Whaler boats off the stage, the three women came out with umbrellas to represent the rising whales, sailors jumped into the ocean, and swung from rigging.  Queequeg and Mungun (Javen ulambayar) performed amazing Cirque-du-Soleil style acrobatic stunts to represent under-water action.  Actors ran down the aisle holding white clothe sheets over the audience as if the wake of Moby Dick were upon us.  It was all dazzling.  But, that was my problem with the production.  I lost the story by being amazed at the spectacle.  If I wanted to go to the circus, which is quite a legitimate evening of entertainment, I could.  I went to the theatre.

One more gripe: Melville does not include women in his book, except for a brief reference to widows on New England.  He does not even talk about the sailors longing for women on their three to four-year journeys from the Atlantic through the India Ocean to the Pacific.  Yet, the further the play progressed, the more sexualized the three female actresses became toward the male actors.  A sailor falls into the ocean, a sensual female figure gives him the kiss of death.  A harpooner is pulled over by a whale, she gives him the kiss of death.  Moby Dick, portrayed by the three women in white bustier tops, rams the ship and kills Captain Ahab.  What a way to go.  Wait… what happened to Melville’s elegant language.  This is not Moby Dick… It’s Moby Virgina.

Theatres struggle with audience expectations and developing the next generation of theatre-goers.  The Greatest-Generation patrons, who make up the largest part of the audience at the matinée performances we attend — with their canes, walkers, Rollators, and transport chairs — will be around only another 10 years.  Us baby-boomers are a fickle bunch, with too many entertainment options to be consistent season-ticket holders.  Except for a few theatre-geeks, Millennials are absent from the theatres that we attend. Anyway, who can be off their phone for two-and-a-half hours these days?  What is drawing audiences to plays these days is spectacle and special effects (a little Tn’A, helps too).  Call it the Disneyization of the stage.

Guess, I go back to reading.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Theatre Review: Moby Dick

  1. cindy knoke says:

    What fun. I now want to see of these again!

  2. Chet says:

    I have seen 2 productions of Moby Dick on stage. One was a traveling company who had a mast and a few pieces that suggested the ship, and could be moved around to create other locations/effects. The show was designed to tour to schools and libraries and simply told the story in an hour. It used the language of Melville but synthesized the story, focusing on the action. My friend, playwright Brian Kral, also wrote and directed a version that took place in the south seas but was very true to the story and language. It was fascinating. Brian’s strength is creative use of space and creating spectacular images with very little. The reviews were mixed, but I found it fascinating. (If you are remotely interested, I can ask him for a copy.) Sounds like both of the productions I have seen were more satisfying than the one you saw.
    Oh– Tom reminds me that we saw a one-man show at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The man played Captain Ahab’s wife from the deck of a whaling ship. I can’t imagine how I forgot it– it was so, um memorable. Apparently I was not the demographic for that experience.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I belive that I might have enjoyed those shows more. However, I recognize that stage productions are competing for ever-shortening attention spans and special effects of computer games, movies, and high-budget, Disney financed Broadway plays. All of those are quite legitimate forms of entertainment, just as a circus is entertaining. But, when I loose the experience of the play because my attention is on something else (some big-name star on stage or special effects) the production went too far. Glad you have seen some other version of the tale. The story from Captain Ahab’s widow would be fascinating. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Anthony Fleming III says:

    I played Queequeg in the production of Moby Dick you just “reviewed”. Sorry you didn’t like the show but calling it Moby Vagina…wow. Yes, Melville doesn’t directly mention women in his book but women are apart of this story. As I’m sure you’re aware, many elements of sea life are giving a feminine energy: ships and boats often referred to with female names, the sea itself, nature, fate/destiny, all surrounded with strong, feminine energy. Our play attempts, quite successfully in my and many other people’s opinions, to include this perspective and add this much needed womanly touch . You need action in a play. Not just dialog. Especially of this grand, sweeping piece of literature. The action and physical vocabulary created in the play is not merely spectacle, but goes a long way in supporting and lifting Melville’s beautiful words off the page. We are not doing circus to create some cartoonish Disney quality to our work. Life at sea is physical, athletic, violent. Our play captures these things. You’re review not only missed the mark in many ways but you selfishly gave away certain elements of the ending that most all other reviewers have very wisely decided to keep quiet about and allow the audience to experience it. I say with confidence, this production of Melville’s classic story is one of the best versions ever created. You calling it Moby Vagina proves to me that you just didn’t get it. Too bad. So sad.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Mr. Flemming

      I am honored that you have found, read, and given a respectful response in dissent to the opinions and wording that I used in my review of Moby Dick. I am still in the process of reading Melville’s book, with great delight.

      I agree completely with you that transfering a 19th century literary classic to the contemporary stage is a monumental task. My disagreement is with the playwright’s decision on how to do this. You and the other cast members did a wonderful job with the script you were provided. I do not fault cast members (as I would never fault the cast who try to bring out some of Shakespeare’s disasters, such as Titus Andronicus). Yet, my criticism, maybe crudely worded, was that we should not and need not impose 21st century sensibilities (e.g. constructs of femininity and masculinity) on 19th century literature. My apologizies for being crass.

      As to the circus style special affects, I was dazzled. But, I found this to be a distraction rather than an enhancement to my experience. Maybe I missed the point. Maybe I come with preconceptions and distracted myself. Again, I do not fault you and cast, for this was a director’s decision.

      Please pass on to the cast that I enjoyed all of your work in the performance. Also, my wife disgrees with my reflections on this play. Controversy and disagreement are fine with me, as long as we can discuss these.

      Again, thank you for expressing your position. I look forward to seeing you and the other cast member’s in future shows at Arena Stage.


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