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Moby Dick - Rehearsed

Reviving Orson Welles' dramatization of Herman Melville's classic novel proves to be a daunting task. logo
Seth Duerr and Mickey Ryan in Moby Dick - Rehearsed
(© Nan Melville Photography)
It's not surprising that in the 1950s, Orson Welles decided to adapt Herman Melville's Moby-Dick for the stage, in something called Moby Dick - Rehearsed. In his own career, Welles had long since embarked on a voyage that might be considered the artistic equivalent of Moby-Dick protagonist Captain Ahab's vindictively obsessive pursuit of the white whale that had chewed off one of his legs. You could say that the masterpiece Welles sought to snag in unfinished project after unfinished project eventually did him in, just as Ahab eventually loses his monumental man-versus-sea beast battle.

Half a century later, Moby-Dick continues to remain a teasing challenge that stage lubbers who set sail after it risk life and limb stalking. In the last decade or so, a number of artists have dived head-first into these roiling seas -- Laurie Anderson with Songs and Stories From "Moby Dick", Rinde Eckert with And God Created Great Whales and Julian Rad with his startlingly effective eight-man Moby Dick -- with varying degrees of success.

Now, director Marc Silberschatz has attempted to give a first-class revival to Moby Dick-Rehearsed, and he's had a daunting time achieving his goal. The catch here is not Welles' abridgement of Melville's oceanic story, because perhaps more readily than any comparable classic, the source material lends itself to judicious trimming. Melville supplemented the riveting tale of Ahab tracking his nemesis with chapters on every aspect of the then-thriving whaling biz. For many contemporary readers, the term "too much information" applies. Stripped on the stage of all the deep background, the narrative has headlong drive and snap.

Instead, the problem with this outing remains partially in how Welles frames his piece: A group of actors interrupt a rehearsal of King Lear to explore Moby-Dick. Any sane theatergoer wants to cry, "Spare us," which Welles did somewhat, concentrating much more diligently on Melville's irresistible plot than any backstage goings-on.

However, vivifying the plot is where Silberschatz has to come through. But in his run at matching ambition with Welles, he too often substitutes bombast for ballast. The 11-man and one-woman cast shouts and carries on as they think actors ought to do when trying to be heard over crashing waves and an angry tail-whomping whale. (Sound designer John D. Ivy's effects, possibly to compensate for the no-set set and the work-clothes costumes, are occasionally helpful but too often nerve-fraying.)

Indeed, the actors-acting atmosphere rules here -- and the scent of attention-getting improvisation abounds. Moreover, not much can be said in favor of the mime the eager thespians do when supposedly tying knots and executing other shipboard chores.

A few of the participants, however, rise above the fray. Seth Duerr, bearded and using a cane as if to tap out the sins of the world, manages to bring pathos to Welles' thumb-nail sketch of Ahab. Tim Scott as Ishmael takes the novel's opening line, "Call me Ishmael," to heart. He looks throughout as if he feels the ominous weight of the saga he's unfolding. Mickey Ryan as the upright Starbuck and David Skigen as Stubb also behave as if this isn't the first play they've ever been in, which sadly can't be said of some other members of the cast.

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