Friday, April 24, 2015

In pursuit of the White Whale: NoExitPerformance enters the maelstrom of 'Moby Dick' — and survives

Stage adaptations of monstrous, venerated literary works are not as rare as one might expect. The challenge to extract theatrical values from famous prose narratives is irresistible, and instant name recognition of the adapted material amounts to a marketing boost from the get-go.

NoExit Performance, valiant and imaginative among the smaller theater organizations in town, entered the second and final weekend of its "Moby Dick" production Thursday night at the Wheeler Arts Community just south of Fountain Square.

Julian Rad's adaptation of Herman Melville's leviathan book hits all the major themes, judging from my memory of having finished reading it in January. (My first reading was in my teens; this time, I was appalled to see the word "omit" penciled in on the first page of each chapter that digresses from the main narrative thread — and ignored that immature directive.)

The nearly abstract look of the set, which is also turned to practical use, supports the show's larger themes.
To be sure, some important elements have suffered shrinkage, but they are there in outline: The  initially rough friendship between the narrator, Ishmael (Rory Willats), and the exotic harpooner Queequeg (Max Jones) — mysterious and profound and resonant with homoerotic overtones — isn't fully fleshed out. Father Mapple's sermon,  probably the most famous homily in fiction until the hellfire-and-brimstone clerical rant in James Joyce's  "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," is missing — though the enlisted crew here sings a solemn pre-voyage hymn that serves a similar purpose. The leisurely grandiloquence of Melville's language, even some of its humor, is preserved in generous voice-over use of Ishmael's narration.

With the inspired direction (including apt choreographic ornamentation) of Michael Burke, this version both haunts and excites. It is noisy and energetic, infused with demonic possession in the person and influence of Captain Ahab, who is determined to turn the hard business of whaling into the even harder mission of personal revenge.

Burke has woven into the show recorded atmospheric music, sensitive to the changing moods of hope, fear, bravado and dedication to work that run throughout the doomed crew. After a crew member is lost overboard, a substantial portion of Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" makes for a perfect aural background. Ryan Mullins' set design is a richly suggestive backdrop of sails and rigging, with weather-worn wood representations of various shipboard surfaces in the foreground.

Best of all in this adaptation, as seen Thursday, was one of the quiet scenes, a colloquy between Captain Ahab and his skeptical first mate, Starbuck (Scott Russell), in which the nagging desire for a settled life on land preoccupies both men. What emerges here and in one of his raging speeches is Ahab's sense that his quest to kill the whale that cost him a leg and has caused legendary havoc to whalers the world over is out of his control. His mania is driven not merely by willful stubbornness but by destiny. Melville's questioning of free will is a notable philosophical source of energy in "Moby Dick," and all who see this show risk having this unsettling question raised in their own comparatively quiet lives.

Bill Wilkison displayed volcanic rage as Ahab, here holding his customized harpoon.
There were times I cringed at the predominance of uproar in the show, in that I couldn't make out lines that were lost in the shouting and soundtrack. I concluded that the raucous blur was Burke's  deliberate choice, even though a little less roaring on the part of Bill Wilkison, who played Ahab with startling force, would have been helpful: There are ways to express fury at less than top volume. But for so many words to be lost in the general tumult mirrored the underlying theme of the Pequod's being in the grip of something inhuman and elemental.

However much visitors to this show may sense the value of this choice, they are sure to notice the cast's fervent portrayal of these hard-working, poorly paid men submitting to the voyage's business purpose. The wasteful commerce of whaling is part of humankind's grim history according to which every energy source ever mass-produced has despoiled the environment and endangered human life. Whaling was sustained by the demand for whale oil, the main source of pre-electric illumination in American homes. Food extracted from a whale kill was eaten on board; it was valueless as cargo in the era before refrigeration. Secondary booty included whalebone, used primarily in women's corsets, and spermaceti, a source of cosmetics. Ah, vanity!

In this context, Ahab's insane quest is almost as defensible — when you take the long view — as the attention to duty that Starbuck tries to uphold. For most of us, Starbuck's values are good enough: They support life, however meanly or shortsightedly, and they encourage a sense of connection to the human world beyond ourselves. Ahab, of course, is in thrall to something larger — how to get back at the universe for making all of us so vulnerable. It's a losing battle, of course, and we're better off not going there, except in the imagination that this production so vividly embodies.

Yet we're all in the same boat, too. Among this production's moving scenes is the last thing you see — the curtain call, no solo bows, with the cast all in a line, Ahab among his fellows.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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