Classics. 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.
By 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, etc., 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.