Moby's Play

Kirk Smith on bringing Melville's whale to the stage

Moby's Play
Illustration By Robert Faires

You wouldn't want just anyone trying to get Moby Dick inside a theatre. After all, it takes a skilled hand to fit a beast that big onto a stage. Fortunately, we have Kirk Smith to take on this monumental task in our town. Smith, a gifted playwright and composer whose credits include The Deluge and Despair's Book of Dreams and the Sometimes Radio, has a way with 19th-century literary heavyweights, having previously turned Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities into a sleek piece of theatricality that had you racing breathlessly through the streets of Revolution-era Paris without ever leaving the cozy theatre of the Vortex. In 1997, Smith crafted that adaptation for Vortex Repertory Company's Summer Youth Theatre, where it proved stageworthy enough to be revived in a subsequent season. Now, he's returning to the Summer Youth Theatre with a new dramatic version of Herman Melville's masterpiece. He's found a way to squeeze not only that monstrous whale into the Vortex, but also the vast sea, the characters' mighty emotions, and the immense scope of this powerful American novel. It might sound impossible, but there are still more favorable signs: Smith's directorial collaborator on A Tale of Two Cities, Vortex Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum, serves in that capacity here, and the talented Elizabeth Doss, who plays Ishmael, is none other than Herman Melville's great-great-great granddaughter.

Austin Chronicle: How stressful is it tackling epic literary masterpieces and trying to wrestle them to the stage? Easier than bringing down a great white whale?

Kirk Smith: It was stressful at first until I realized in this particular case that my task was impossible. Once I accepted that my failure was imminent, I relaxed and just did my work and didn't worry about it.

The Dickens adaptation was a different case. A Tale of Two Cities is so event-driven. One thing has to happen before the next event can take place, and that leads to the next thing, until finally the blade falls at the end. That required a little more patience. This was a much wilder ride. This one definitely required a much bolder commitment.

AC: How do you see the role that Bonnie Cullum plays in helping you bring these works of literature to the theatre: Captain? First mate? Harbormaster? Lighthouse keeper?

KS: She's definitely the ocean. These things happen in freefall. Bonnie and I have enough experience together that I come up with this thing and just sort of toss it out on the water, and then the waves toss and the winds blow, and she makes it happen.

AC: What's your personal take on what Moby Dick itself represents?

KS: Let me just quote from the script on that one. There's a nice line right before the end of act one: "The White Whale swims before him as the monomaniac incarnation which some deep men feel eating in them until they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung ... All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the worst of things, all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinew and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to Ahab, is visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piles upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race, from Adam on down." end story

Moby Dick runs July 18-27, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. Call 478-LAVA.

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Moby Dick, Kirk Smith, Vortex Repertory Company, Vortex Repertory Company Summer Youth Theatre, Despair's Book of Dreams and the Sometimes Radio, The Deluge, Bonnie Cullum, Elizabeth Doss

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