Moby Dick as Physical Theater
Arena Stage in their Kreeger Theater has opened a visceral interpretation of Herman Melville's 206,052-word novel Moby Dick. On November 25, 2016, the Dresser, sitting in the balcony--probably the best place to experience this exceptional display of stagecraft and circus, partook of Arena's collaborative production with Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. This what is called physical theater. The acting by Christopher Donahue as the obsessed Captain Ahab and Anthony Fleming III as the primitive but philosophical Queequeg is worth the price of the ticket alone.
The Dresser would eagerly return to see another performance to savor Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi's aerial and acrobatic choreography which includes a woman on stilts lecturing about the different types of whales, a woman as whale (women in the 19th century wore whale bone corsets and hooped skirts) strung upside down and denuded of her skirt ruffles cum blubber, a woman as sea with her skirt so large it covered the entire stage and beyond (hats off to costume designer Sully Ratke) as well as the extraordinary demonstrations of strength and balance as the mates climbed Courtney O'Neill's set--the rigging of the Pequod which looked to be the ribs of a gigantic whale.
While Melville wrote his masterpiece as a male-dominated story, this interpretation includes women in nearly every scene by a clever conceit that injects a Greek-like chorus of Fates to present Melville's narrative or gives women the role of representing (while still dressed in women's clothing) things in nature like whales or the sea.
The Dresser mentioned the number of words in Melville's novel, which is less than half the size of Tolstoy's War and Peace, to hit home how difficult it is to enact every gem in the book into the stage production. So yes, Melville aficionados, scenes and characters are missing or conflated. However, the Dresser suggests that the choices made for this production are worth getting past, for example, playwright and director David Catlin's decision to call Pip the Cabin boy by another Moby Dick character's name--Cabaco. Just to review, Pip is the African American boy (the racial aspect of this character and others was entirely ignored) who was so frightened by a whale ramming the small whaling boat in which he was crewing that he jumps out and gets left for hours in the sea. As a result, the boy goes crazy and becomes Captain Ahab's wise fool. Cabaco is a sailor who tut-tuts his friend Archy's observation that there are unseen people in the hold of the ship. The unseen people are several men of mysterious origins hired by Ahab to help him kill his nemesis, the white whale Moby Dick. This production never sees Fedallah and his men and the Dresser thinks it was unfortunate to point at them by calling the cabin boy Cabaco.
In Gertrude Stein's "A Piece of Coffee." strange combinations seem to reverberate with Moby Dick where a white greenhorn named Ishmael becomes the soulmate of a black African prince named Queequeg who is extremely adept with a harpoon. They journey together until the captain of their ship is dragged by a harpoon rope into the sea by the same massive whale that had bitten off the captain's leg and until Ishmael, while the ship sinks, is saved by the funereal furniture built for Queequeg who at one point thought he was going to die from a chill he took in the hold of the ship.
A PIECE OF COFFEE. [an excerpt]
More of double.
A place in no new table.
A single image is not splendor. Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned. A piece of coffee is not a detainer. The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter. The clean mixture is whiter and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether.
The sight of a reason, the same sight slighter, the sight of a simpler negative answer, the same sore sounder, the intention to wishing, the same splendor, the same furniture.
The time to show a message is when too late and later there is no hanging in a blight.
by Gertrude Stein
from Tender Buttons
Liz Lauren--Ishmael & Queequeg
Greg Mooney--Captain Ahab & Fate; whaleboats