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Michael Berry in Moby Dick
(Photo © Julian Rad for Works Productions)
Attempts at adapting Herman Melville's masterpiece Moby Dick to the screen and the stage have generally met with about as much success as Ahab had with the great white whale. Great artists have tried to harpoon this story and make it their own, but no one has quite conquered it. Film director John Huston came pretty close when, in 1956, he turned Gregory Peck into Captain Ahab and made an ambitious if dull epic. Huston hired Orson Welles to play the fire and brimstone preacher who makes a brief appearance early on in the story; film critic Andrew Sarris once suggested that Huston should have played the preacher and Welles should have directed the movie. No doubt he said this because Welles had directed Moby Dick the year before on the London stage. This, too, was an ambitious undertaking and quite avant-garde for its time; Welles reportedly filled the stage to overflowing with ropes in order to make literal and metaphorical statements. Some thought the production was a masterpiece, others just shook their heads. So, the question still sounds, "Have you seen the great play?"

Now we can say, "Look, it beckons!" Moby Dick, in a tight, spare adaptation by Julian Rad and under the exciting, imaginative direction by Hilary Adams, is beckoning audiences to the Ohio Theater. This is an excellent opportunity to see a great novel brought to life -- a good thing, too, because we wouldn't be surprised if Moby Dick is among the least read of American classics. It's a brilliant book, but the expression "Too much information" might have been coined to describe the waves of whaling minutia that Herman Melville included in his novel.

Rad and Adams have taken the most valuable elements of the book and discarded the rest. The basic plot concerns a man's quest for revenge: Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to the infamous white whale, uses his vessel and its crew to wreak his own personal revenge upon Moby Dick. The innocent young Ishmael, on his first voyage as a whaler, is caught up in Ahab's quest and recounts the tale for us. Every member of the crew goes along with Ahab except Starbuck, the first mate, who comes within an inch of killing the captain in order to stop this suicidal mission.

Themes circle this play like sharks in a feeding frenzy; it deals with fundamental issues such as fate versus free choice but it also resonates with the basic dynamic of leaders and followers: We are often at the mercy of a leader (personal, business, military, political, etc.) who makes judgments on our behalf based on personal motives rather than the general good. Seeing this truth played out in a well done stage version of Melville's tumultuous tragedy has a powerful effect.

Though the story spans oceans and involves action on a grand scale, the Ohio Theater production is played on a virtually bare stage. The set design consists of just four ladders. The props? One long, thin steel rod. Costuming is slightly more elaborate; the characters wear clothes that at least suggest 19th-century sailors. And Rad has skillfully adapted so many traditional songs for use here as to turn this Moby Dick into something akin to a musical.

We're not kidding: Some of the actors, if not all of them, were clearly cast as much for their singing voices as their acting skills. Consider that, in this cast of eight, Starbuck is portrayed by Michael Berry, whose credits include the Broadway company of Les Misérables and the national tour of Sunset Blvd. Among the supporting players is Joseph Melendez, who was in the recent Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. You get the idea; the show's songs, performed a cappella and sans amplification, sound glorious. They range from stirring to heartbreaking and they have a unique, muscular beauty. Best of all, they are woven throughout the play in the most natural ways; the men sing when you might expect men on a whaling boat to sing, so the use of so many songs never feels like phony theatrics.

Except for the aforementioned ladders, we never see the Pequod; the whaling ship is created almost entirely in our imagination by the movements of the actors as they duck under imaginary beams, pull imaginary ropes, row with imaginary oars, and so on. You buy into the look and style of the production from the very first moment, when the vibrant young actor Christopher Kelly walks from the rear of the large, empty playing space to the front, boldly announcing the famous opening line of the book: "Call me Ishmael." In all of his speeches, Kelly addresses the audience directly, locking eyes with us and thereby pulling us right into the play. This is one of this season's first truly magnetic performances. Meanwhile, Michael Berry as Starbuck captures the turmoil of a man who tries to keep his emotions hidden. It's a wonderfully subtle yet intense piece of work -- and Berry is also a sensational singer.

William Metzo plays Captain Ahab with plenty of presence and a deliciously visceral voice, but he always seems to be "acting." Julian Rad, who plays the "cannibal" harpoonist Queequeg, is a better playwright than he is an actor -- but he, too, has a great voice. The rest of the cast is solid and they all work together like a tight-knit team. Anthony Ferguson and Joseph Melendez play three characters apiece, each with a different voice and physical style. Eirik Gislason portrays the tempestuous Flask with fiery conviction and Michael Shawn Montgomery is boisterously physical as Stubb.

The fact that Moby Dick himself makes no appearance here is less of a disappointment than you would think; the play's total reliance on imagination allows us to accept the whale's presence without ever seeing him. It's a testament to Hilary Adams's superb direction that the Ohio Theater's Moby Dick pulls off this impressive feat of legerdemain.

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