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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Moby Dick - Rehearsed

Herman Melville enthusiasts -- and there are many in these parts where Melville's home is a favorite tourist attraction -- will want to see what Orson Welles himself a man of Ahab-like megalomania has wrought with that most famous tale, Moby Dick. Those who enjoy having their literature dished up to them in easy to digest dramatic adaptations will also find much to enjoy in this hybrid of Melville's story adapted to draw a parallel between King Lear and Captain Ahab. In fact, this new version of Orson Welles' forty-five-year-old play-within-a play sounds so intriguing that one wonders why it is so little known and even less often performed -- a troupe of actors abandon their rehearsal of a play about one unforgiving, vengeance obsessed man, King Lear, to recreate another of the same emotional stripe, Captain Ahab.

Eric Hill's beautiful, moody production has all the elements to support the Berkshire Theatre Festival's dusting the mothballs off Moby Dick - Rehearsed. He has commandeered the large cast into an impressive ensemble that presents us with many stunning human tableaus of the prideful Ahab and the men he persuades to stick with him as he pursues his unforgiving quest for revenge against the monster whale that took his leg. These tableaus of men whose acting is more a case of "physicalized listening" is more potent than much of the blank verse in which Welles wrote his script to underscore the Melville-Shakespeare connection. (The quoted term comes from Brendan Coyle who should know, since this actorly listening garnered him an Olivier Award for best supporting player in The Weir in which he is currently playing on Broadway. Groups of silent but eminently watchable actors also contributed to the excitement of the just closed revival of The Iceman Cometh).

To support all the elements of the play -- the scenes leading into silent as well as versified and sung (chanties courtesy of BTF composer Scott Killian) Moby Dick story -- Mr. Hill has enlisted the Berkshire Theatre's designer-par-excellence of dark and moody sets, Rob Odorisio; also Don Kotlowitz to light everything in the right shades of gloom.

That's the good news. On the minus side, David Purdham is a capable and courageous actor. Orson Welles who played Ahab when this play opened in London, saved himself for Father Mapple in John Huston's memorable Moby Dick film in which Gregory Peck played Ahab. Purdham here walks the plank as Ahab and ascends the preacher's lectern as Father Mapple. But Purdham's Ahab, while okay, hardly has what London critic Kenneth Tynan called "a voice of bottled thunder." Neither is his Captain Mapple's Johnah sermon a match to the multi-talented Welles'.

While the non-speaking scenes represent the best part of this production, the whole cast does well by the speaking parts. Casey Biggs is a strong Starbuck (Ahab's first mate) and Tom Story outstanding as the narrator and only survivor, Ishmael. I was particularly struck by his strong physical resemblance to a young Orson Welles.

In the final analysis, you come away more impressed by the production than the play. For the true horror and tragedy of Ahab and a full sense of his universality and the book's symbolism, you'll still need to read the book.

To close on a note of trivia: The name of Melville's most famous creation was suggested by an article by Jeremiah Reynolds, published in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine in May 1839. "Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific" recounted the capture of a giant white sperm whale that had become infamous among whalers for its violent attacks on ships and their crews. The meaning of the name itself is quite simple -- the whale was often sighted in the vicinity of the island of Mocha, and "Dick" was merely a generic name like "Jack" or "Tom" -- names of other deadly whales cited by Melville in Chapter 45 of the novel.

Editor's Note, 7/19/99: We'd like to share the following bit of background submitted by a reader -- e.s. . . .
Nice review. I got to see Orson Welles do this play in New York. They staged it on an absolutely bare stage, no props whatever. Once they entered the world of the novel, there was no return back to the "theater" everyone was the character they were playing. Here at Berkshire there is a constant reference to theater, and the period that I found annoying. The play needs Welles, or someone like him. He had a way of delivering a line that keep you wondering if it was cynical or actually concerned. Very like the closing line of the play, "you bring down the curtain", as I remember him delivering it, it was a threat, not a reward. Gabriel Lanci

By Orson Welles
Directed by Eric Hill
With: (in order of appearance) Tom Story, Richard Ruiz, Elliott Simons, Casey Biggs, Todd Anthony-Jackson, William Swan, Careena Melia, Mike Dowling, David Purdham, Desi Jévon, Oliver Butler ; and company member-sailors:, J. B. Waterman, Timothy Hampton and Richard Ramsey
Sets: Rob Odorisio
Costumes: Murrell Horton
Lights: Dan KotlowitzBrian Nason
Composer: Scott Killian
Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA (413/298-5536)
6/13/99-7/31/99 (opening 6/14)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on opening night performance

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