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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Anyone who has made it through a comprehensive American literature course probably knows from whence this question originates. As he roams the oceans, the fixated old seaman Captain Ahab utters the question a couple of times in Moby Dick -Rehearsed (as he does in the novel), and he'll ask it pretty much up to his dying breath. The man is seeking not just the leviathan that took his leg, after all, but a showdown with the darkness in his soul.
That said, there actually is a big creature in this story—a creature that nobody ever sees in Moby Dick-Rehearsed at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum where Orson Welles' play is part of the Theatricum's 2019 summer repertory lineup. The players in Ellen Geer's production can conjure up the crew of the Pequod, the ship itself, certain intensity and the spirit of Herman Melville's great sea novel. But to find the whale itself, audience members must drink in the descriptions of playwright Welles and then task our imagination to bring Moby Dick to life. In this case, that proves harder than it may seem.
Rehearsed is structured as an extended artistic interlude. On a break from performing Shakespeare's King Lear, a company of actors turn to Melville and act out Moby-Dick, arguably the greatest American novel ever written. Once the framing device of this rehearsal-within-a-play is established, it never returns. So even though we've seen the director/lead actor berate his Cordelia, and watched the actor tabbed to play Starbuck question his motivation, any subsequent conflict is all Moby Dick-related.
Primed though they may have been for Shakespeare, this company proves resourceful with the whale tale. Narrative duties are tossed around between newbie whaler Ishmael (Dane Oliver) and the director of Lear (Franc Ross). Nobody breaks character. We're watching Ahab, Starbuck, Stub and the Pequod crew, not Repertory company actors #1-#12 messing around with a script. And once the final curtain falls, the actors acknowledge that the time for whaling is at an end, and they have to set up for the evening performance of An Enemy of the People (Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Gin Game round out the Theatricum Botanicum's summer repertory.
The Theatricum is a pitch-perfect organization and venue to be tackling a work built around play-making. The stationary set is open and inviting; we watch the Pequod being assembled and see the sound and lighting effects laid in. The Theatricum's repertory structure and the presence of long-time company members moving from show to show (and season to season) helps transform that pastoral Topanga stage into what many southland audiences consider their neighborhood playhouse. Imagine, then, a group of friends telling you a story in your living room. Then multiply the size of your living room, throw in a bunch of trees, some sleepy summer heat and back-breaking benches, and heave, ho! We're off on an adventure.
The work of lighting designer Zach Moore and sound designer/composer Marshall McDaniel's go a long way toward placing us first in Nantucket and later on a storm-tossed ocean. Geer deploys her actors all over that stage, having them climb, construct, row, capsize, you name it.
Still, for this tale, the external trappings of a theatrical company can only take us so far. If you're giving us Moby Dick, the whale either needs to knock our socks off when we see it (an unlikely proposition for any staging) or the actors had better make it so that, whale or no whale, we're too wrapped up in what's going on with Ahab and the mates, that the appearance Moby Dick is beside the point. Welles may have imagined Moby-Dick- Rehearsed to be on par with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, but the whaling tale doesn't have that urgency. Even with Moby Dick - Rehearsed clocking in at a relatively ship shape two hour running length, when the action isn't moving, this vessel threatens to sink.
That's Welles's fault, and to a lesser extent, Melville's. The book is enormous and takes a lot of detours from its adventure to provide background on whales and whaling. Rehearsed carves out a lot of the bloat, but not all of it. The prophetic preacher Father Mapple in the Whaleman's Chapel is a great role and Franc Ross gives him plenty of puritan gravitas, but does anybody really need to hear the man's entire sermon on Jonah?
Equally deadening is a lengthy scene between Ahab (Gerald Rivers) and the ship's boy Pip (KiDane Kelati). For reasons not made entirely clear, little Pip has gone mad and Ahab (his own wits failing) takes more than a little bit of time to comfort and shelter him. The scene has echoes of encounters between Lear and his Fool with the roles reversed, but the Pip-Ahab tete-a-tete is distracting and, particularly in Kelati's hands, shrill and histrionic.
Michael McFall has some entertaining moments as the islander harpooner Queequeg, although after his amusing first encounter with Oliver's Ishmael, the character doesn't have a lot to do. Tavis L. Baker and Colin Simon are well cast and appropriately salty or grave as crew members Stubb and Starbuck.
Rivers positively nails Ahab, making the mad captain sometimes a crusader, and others a broken-down old man, waging an all-out war with God. Stumping around on a disintegrating wooden leg, his already lined face further marked with scars, Rivers makes the character entirely his own.
Moby-Dick himself? Well, when the white whale finally "appears" at the play's conclusion, we're more than ready for an epic showdown. Even with the Theatricum's considerable playmaking resources and expertise, it's an underwhelming end to an epic tale. Kudos certainly to the Theatricum for taking us out to sea. Would that the waters were smoother.
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Moby Dick - Rehearsed by Orson Welles
Directed by Ellen Geer
Cast: Tavis L. Baker, Tim Halligan, KiDane Kelati, Julia Lisa, Jacob Louis, Melora Marshall, Michael McFall, Dane Oliver, Gerald C. Rivers, Franc Ross, Dante Ryan, Colin Simon, Isaac Wilkins, Louis Baker, Matthew Domenico, Colin Guthrie, Matt Mallory, Cavin Mohrhardt, Matthew Pardue
Costume Design: Beth Eslick
Production Stage Manager: Kim Cameron
Original Music/Sound Designer: Marshall McDaniel
Lighting Designer: Zach Moore
Assistant Stage Manager/Properties Master: Sarah Dawn Lowry
Assistant Director and Fight Choreographer: Dane Oliver
Plays through September 29, 2019 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga (310) 455-3723, www.theatricum.com.
Running time: Two hour with one ten minute intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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