Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., July 26, 2002
Moby Dick: Study of Mortality in Blue and White
through July 27
Running Time: 2 hrs, 5 min
You never see the sea in the Vortex Repertory Company's new stage adaptation of Moby Dick, but you sense it around you and under you, this great rolling expanse of ocean, spreading for leagues in every direction, blue as the sky above and deep as the heavens are high, a place of great beauty and mystery, home to the leviathan and stoneless grave for many a sailor. Your sense of it comes from the waves crashing and whales calling in Chad Salvata's soundscape, from the rippling light on the faces of the cast (an effect playfully created by Brian Davis with water in a bowl reflected into a spotlight), but mostly it comes from the language, from descriptions of "cold, malicious waves" and "fiery showers of foam" and "sullen white surf," of tides and wakes and things swimming and sailing, of reference after reference to the deep, the vast, unknowable deep.
In Kirk Smith's adaptation of Herman Melville's masterwork, language comes at us in great waves, in storms of words, soaking our brains with images, not just of the sea but of Atlantic squalls and Nantucket chowderhouses, of berths below decks and masthead perches, of shark attacks and the devastation wreaked by a white whale on ships and sailors and a Captain Ahab, who lost a leg to the beast's "sickle-shaped jaw." All this comes to us through the dense, ornate language of the novel; it is the surging, living ocean on which this play moves. It is through language that we come to know the depth of Ahab's hatred for Moby Dick, through language that we absorb the terror that the whale inspires and the dread in the heart of the sailors Starbuck and Ishmael, through language that we feel the persistent chill of death on board Ahab's ship.
The language here is powerful, but when you have an ocean of it, you'd best have a skilled crew to navigate it lest your vessel be swamped. As this is one of Vortex's Summer Youth Theatre productions, half the actors are teens, and while the adult actors include several of Vortex's most experienced hands, most seem to lack the vocal training that would give them ready command over this kind of text. At times, the impact of certain passages, or their beauty or humor, is diminished by a lack of projection or clear diction or variety in pitch. Still, no actor here, not even the youngest, shies away from the challenge of telling this story, and it's encouraging to see youthful artists wading so fearlessly into such complex, mature material.
They may not convey every nuance of every line, but the actors here do communicate the feel of life at sea, the danger of it, the feverish pursuit of the white whale and foreboding it occasions, and the roles played by Destiny and Death, for this is very much a philosopher's version of Moby Dick. Director Bonnie Cullum has drawn her disparate band of players into a crew, and they put their hearts and backs into the tale, climbing the mast and rope ladders on Ann Marie Gordon's shipboard set, making us believe that they are at work. Elizabeth Doss makes Ishmael thoughtful and soft-spoken, as if the world were a library in which he is careful not to disturb those deep in study, like himself, but she also salts the role with a wry humor. In contrast, Zach Pettichord's Starbuck is grave of face and dressed as if for his own funeral; but beneath his sober demeanor lies a profound sensitivity to life. They face off against Stewart Johnson's Ahab, whose hard face looks to have been carved by sharp Atlantic winds and whose gaze betrays his distracted state: wide eyes focused in the distance, as if some image of Moby Dick is perpetually burned there.
We do see the whale in this production. When a sailor dies, the actor who plays him bends at the waist, draws a white cloth over his or her back and shoulders, and moves in formation with other players similarly covered. The cloth suggests a shroud, and so the fearsome whale becomes an aggregate of humanity in death. As it circles Ahab in the play's final moments, we find ourselves adrift in the infinite, looking at mortality as a patch of white in a sea of blue.