December 4, 2017
By Natalie Dignam & Alicia Howco
On Friday and Saturday night, students in English 4401 performed Orson Welles’ version of the classic American novel Moby Dick at the Barbara Bartlett Theatre. This steam-punk, sea shanty filled performance combined the spirit of Melville’s celebrated characters with Welles’ off-kilter adaptation.
Moby Dick – Rehearsed wasn’t something that I expected going into it. Plain and simple, my expectations were just that: an adaptation of the novel Moby Dick. Maybe it was due to my lack of knowledge of the playwright, the classic actor Orson Welles that caused me to assume that the show would be something other what it was.
There weren’t long explanations of the crew or how to hunt a whale. Rather, there was a whirlwind of scenes, telling the plot of the (quite large) novel simply enough that someone who knew next to nothing about the book (like myself) could understand. The pacing in these scenes could be disorientating to some, though I never had a problem with it.
However, the interesting part of the show wasn’t the adaptation itself, but the frame that lead to the adaptation. The play begins with a scene explaining that the show (the one that is being watched by the audience) tells the story of a theater company. None of the actors in this company want to rehearse Moby Dick, but they have no choice because their boss the Governor wants to perform this play. The cast end up not only doing the rehearsal, but really getting into the performance, and working together to make this reluctant rehearsal actually good. This dynamic of a bunch of actors spending the show learning to love their parts mixed with the sudden reminder of the frame of the rehearsal, after the very intense ending and everyone (including the audience) forgets of its existence, allows for an interesting narrative twist to this classic tale.
There are some differences between this version and the original show that Orson Welles did back in 1955. Namely the use of costumes and the six women playing Ishmael. Rather than have everyone in street clothes, each of the actors is dressed in steampunk-style clothing. Steampunk is common in fantasy and costume design and mixes older clothing styles such as top hats and dresses with corsages with elements of early 19th century technology like gears, goggles and assorted metal pieces (making Ahab’s missing leg look very different to any other interpretation of the story). The set was also very minimal, with simple props of sticks and light blocks, and no physical appearance of the whale.
Each of the actors playing Ishmael provide their own type of character, separate from every other version of him. This, aside from separating this production of the play from other productions of the show, showcased the different sides of the character of Ishmael.
Anyone who has read Moby Dick will tell you that it’s a whale of a book (pun intended). Director Jamie Skidmore brought life to this behemoth of a tale with quick scene changes and lots of songs (the music was one of the most fantastic parts of the performance).
By far, my favorite part of this dramatic adaptation of Moby Dick was definitely the characters (and some spot on casting- you would never guess that many of these students had never acted in front of a live audience before). You know those people that were really into comparing the cast of Harry Potter to the books? That’s me, except with Moby Dick.
Bruce Benton brought the right amount of King Lear madness to his performance of Ahab without seeming frantic. The Shakespearean parallel is made explicit in Welles’ adaption of the novel through a framed narrative, so Benton actually plays a Governor who recites lines from King Lear in the opening scene and then directs the cast of a local theatre to rehearse this play version of Moby Dick (so Welles’ play is actually a rehearsal.. yeah, it took me a long time to get the title Moby Dick- Rehearsed). It’s that just-under-the-surface obsessiveness that makes Ahab such a charismatic captain who’s able to convince his crew to follow him on this insane, suicidal pursuit of the white whale. Benton’s performance was really spot on to the novel.
My second shout out goes to Evan Maddick, Charles Dart, and Daniel Murphy for their performances as Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. The duet of “The Whole of the Moon” by Maddick and Dart was fantastic and captured the spirit of the passages in the novel where Ishmael is on watch at night, describing the sea and the moon and contemplating this crazy mission he’s gotten himself into. Stubb is my favorite character in the novel and I was excited to see Dart play him to a tee. The crew’s first attempt to pursue Moby Dick is memorable in the book for Stubb’s fast-paced and hilariously odd pep talks, and Dart certainly captured the character in that corresponding scene.
The only thing I could ask for was more Queeqeg. But I’m not too disappointed since we did have six different Ishmaels, each whom brought a different personality to this notoriously complex character. Six different actors playing Ishmael seemed fitting, since he is one of literature’s more famous unreliable and changeable narrators.
All in all, Moby Dick- Rehearsed got two thumbs up from these reviewers and we’ll be on the lookout for next semester’s student performances.