To Moby-Dick diehards as well as to those who were confounded by The Scarlet Letter in ninth grade English class, the "explosive" friendship between Hawthorne and Melville in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts may seem a curious topic for dramatic treatment. These two legends of American literature were only acquainted for a few intense months in 1849; Hawthorne was then enjoying the great success of his House of Seven Gables while the maverick Melville obsessively toiled away at his novel about the great white whale, which he later dedicated to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his genius."
After that brief acquaintance, the two parted ways and both of their lives took turns for the worse; they were only to meet once more, years later, by which time Hawthorne was serving as a U.S. consul in Liverpool and Melville had taken a deadening day job as a customs inspector following the disastrous critical reception of Moby Dick. That meeting, along with excerpts from letters between the two men, is fodder for the Axis play.
In Token of My Admiration begins with the company's own search for Melville and it is regrettably Blair Witch-like for a moment: We watch the scenery of Western Massachusetts pass by, filmed by a handheld camera inside a car during a company pilgrimage to Melville's home in the Berkshires. The footage is projected on the three floor-to-ceiling screens that back the playing area. These screens are used throughout the production to display other footage meant to invoke the history and setting of the piece and to show us what the company learned in their research.
There are two "live" actors in the play, the equally worthy Brian Barnhart as Melville and Joe Fuer as Hawthorne. Most of what they say is taken directly from correspondence surrounding the late-in-life meeting of the authors that's mentioned above; though there's only a few minutes of dialogue in total, it's repeated more than a dozen times by the actors, who don't don't address each other directly. There are also several vaudeville bits in which Barnhart and Fuer joke, sing, and play at being whalers in the South Seas.
While the play purports to be an examination of the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville, it's more about the isolation of these two writers and about the inscrutability of biography and identity. The repetition of so few lines and the fact that the actors don't talk to each other makes this a show about space -- space that requires audience members to play an active role in filling it in and finding meaning in the piece. For those with a literary inclination, this sort of thing can be exciting; they are rewarded when a repeated line takes on new meaning through an actor's variant delivery. Others may not appreciate having to mentally assemble the postmodern pieces if the production and may be relieved that it has a running time of under an hour.
The play ends with a thematically elegant moment as Hawthorne's son, played by David Crabb in 19th-century garb, appears onscreen to recount a strange and depressing meeting that he had with Melville after the death of his father. This well placed, simply dramatized sequence resonates in a way that shows off the theatrical smarts of the Axis Company and director Randy Sharp.
With In Token of My Admiration, Axis offers a pared-down but still technically proficient version of its multimedia, multi-theatrical aesthetic. The coordination of screen images and live performance is less distracting and more effective here than it was in some of the company's earlier adaptations of classic plays. In exploring the Hawthorne-Melville relationship, the company again proves itself to be an exciting, evolving presence on the downtown theater scene.