Moby Dick and the crazed sea captain who hates him
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 16, 2010
Even if you've never read Moby-Dick, there are probably a few things you already know about the story simply by existing in modern American culture. For one, there's some guy named Ishmael. And there’s a crazy, one-legged captain called Ahab, who's made it his life's purpose to chase down and harpoon the titular, massive white sperm whale that bit off his limb. Like most classic tales, it doesn't end well.
Ishmael is a young, wanderlust-stricken merchant marine in Manhattan who decides he wants to join the crew of a whaling ship. He makes his way to Massachusetts, where he meets a large, tattooed Polynesian man named Queequeg. The two set out from Nantucket on the Pequod, a whale ship helmed by Ahab. It's not long into the voyage when Ishmael and the rest of the crew learn that Ahab has no interest in hunting whales for oil, only in finding the object of his demented obsession. The rest of the story, told by Ishmael, centers around Ahab's quest and his first mate's protestations.
Mother Road Theatre Company's take on the Melville classic is based on the stage adaptation by writer Julian Rad and director Hilary Adams. Condensing this hefty volume (the 1979 illustrated copy on my shelf runs at 576 pages) into a two-hour play couldn't have been easy, but Rad and Adams did an admirable job. The novel interweaves its narrative with chapters about the whaling industry during the mid-1800s (when the book was first printed), and the play obviously leaves these parts out, choosing to focus solely on the storyline. Even so, it was necessary for the playwrights to abbreviate a number of scenes to prevent patrons from having to sit still for four hours. The result is mostly successful, although there are moments that feel rushed.
The set design is sparse yet well-conceived. The only props used are an iconic, 6-foot harpoon and a handful of crates that are moved about the stage to serve as different items of furniture. The actors use mime in place of other props, and it's a smart choice. The Filling Station is a relatively small theater—it hardly has room for ships, sails, masts and whales. By miming all props—down to rum bottles the sailors frequently pass back and forth—nothing seems out of place when it's time for the crew to “row” a boat or “harpoon” a 50-foot whale that isn't really there. It's a choice that makes the stage feel bigger than it is, that forces the audience's imagination to create spaces and landscapes that otherwise can't exist within the theater.
The one problem the production faces is that, oftentimes, several characters (or all characters) are supposed to talk over each other. No singular voice rises above in these instances, and sometimes all the dialog is lost in a cacophony. At other times, when a single character is speaking quietly, the acoustics of the space make it difficult to understand him. Microphones, or just some more thought to projection, could help.
I was excited to see this play because Mother Road's last production, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, was one of the best pieces of theater I've seen. The actors were mesmerizing; completely consumed by their roles, they lured viewers into the story, which felt as real and concrete as the room around them. Moby Dick doesn't quite succeed on that front. No doubt, the acting is solid all around. There's no weak link in the cast and no obvious faults.
There’s something magical about really wonderful theater that makes viewers forget where they are. There's no acting, no script—there's just a story. There aren't characters, there are people. And there's not an audience, there's just you and a little window into those people's lives. The Beauty Queen transcended the gap between theater and story gracefully. Moby Dick, on the other hand, is solidly grounded in the theater realm. There was no point in which I forgot where I was or didn't think about the fact that I was watching actors, and not just people. But that said, it's still good theater.
Kelly O'Keefe plays the part of Ishmael. Likable and fluid, he's a natural protagonist. He immediately gets the audience on his side—you almost want to get up and hug the guy. Captain Ahab is played by Nicholas Ballas. Fierce and somehow lovably crazed, Ballas navigates the waters between Ahab's growing insanity and his conscience. Ballas has mastered the part of the salty dog—he just finished filming the title role for the indie movie The Incredible Voyage of Captain Hook. Perhaps as a result of this, he emulates the wayward sea captain Ahab elegantly.
Ahab's first mate, Starbuck (Peter Diseth), holds his own against the raging titan. Diseth's strongest scene is when Starbuck struggles with whether he should shoot Ahab in his sleep for the good of himself, his family and his crew. He knows Ahab is on a mission that will likely get them all killed, but he's restrained by morality and duty. Starbuck's turmoil is palpable in Diseth.
I was especially impressed, however, by Vic Browder's performance. Browder plays Stubb, the second mate of the ship. His character is only a side role, but Browder brings the boisterous sailor to life. His movements, his energy, everything about him screamed that he was a man of the sea. He actually reminded me of my uncle, a merchant marine. Unlike Stubb, my uncle isn’t constantly singing and drinking, the eternal and ignorant optimist. But after spending a good 50 percent of his life on the ocean, he's developed certain mannerisms, or a glint in his eye, that make him a recognizable sailor. Somehow, remarkably, Browder found that glint.
Moby Dick is a story about pride, vengeance, destiny, duty, and the conflict that exists between those in power and the people who are supposed to follow them, even to their deaths. It deals with a turbulent and murky mix of emotions—translating them into physical form isn't simple, but Mother Road has done a fine job of it. I don't think Moby Dick is the theater company's best work, but that's a high standard to live up to. The performance, while not perfect, still manages to swell with drama and inquiry.