”The soul is a sort of fifth wheel to a wagon.”
The protagonist, of course, is the sea – murderous, obsessive, monotonous, devourer of lives, sanity, and time, time, time. The sea is the pervasive, melancholy backdrop for the Stanford Repertory Theater‘s compelling production of Orson Welles‘ Moby Dick – Rehearsed, mercifully without intermission, which would only have diluted the oceanic severity of Welles’s wonder of a script. The “watery part of the world” is countebalanced by a quieter antagonist, the human soul itself, that “fifth wheel to a wagon,” as the mad prophetic sailor Elijah says early in the play. Welles whittled Herman Melville‘s 700-page metaphysical novel into a relentless and lyrical 90-minute show – it’s a daring choice for the artistic director Rush Rehm, and a rare opportunity. (The production continues through August 10 – tickets here.)
The hard heart of the inventive production is Rod Gnapp, a Bay Area veteran of ACT, Berkeley Rep, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and others, who turns in a stellar performance as one-legged Captain Ahab. The captain is misguidedly bent on killing the whale who maimed him, his twisted face locked in a grim and grizzled rictus of resentment. His short exchanges with the upright Quaker first mate Starbuck (played by Peter Ruocco), who finally cries, “I disobey my God, obeying him!” are among the highpoints in a drama that has many of them. Here’s another: thanks to composer/sound designer Michael Keck and music director Weston Gaylord, the haunting, a cappella hymns and sailors’ songs are a delicious descant to the drama – in the end, a haunting lament for those who have given their lives for the sea.
The script itself has an interesting history. The original production took place at the the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, with a cast that included Director Welles, Gordon Jackson, Patrick McGoohan, and Joan Plowright. Welles eventually filmed about 75 minutes with the original cast, then abandoned the venture when he was disappointed with the results. Others, including McGoohan, thought the short film was impressive. We’ll never know. The film was lost when a drunken Robert Shaw was smoking in bed at Welles’s Madrid home. The house burned down, along with the only copy of the film. The Munich Film Museum owns a shorter film of excerpts from the play, filmed by Welles in 1971.
Moby Dick – Rehearsed is commonly said to be blank verse, which obviously isn’t true. At best, it’s broken iambics and prose – it falls off the metrical horse too often to be anything more. Just fine for theater, since the ear isn’t counting off metrical feet, and the irregular rhythms throw the emphasis on a hypnotic tale about a monstrous obsession. It’s a lyrical, meditative script, with lines like this one from the narrator, from the young, inexperienced sailor Ishmael (played by Louis McWilliams):
“Our souls were so possessed that Ahab’s hate
was almost ours, and the white whale
our foe as much as his…”
Or from the spiritual insightful Starbuck:
“a vulture feeds upon his heart forever: –
that vulture the very creature he creates.”
Or from hell-bent Ahab:
“…How d’ye know that some
entire, living, thinking thing
may not invisibly be standing
there, where you are standing?
In your most solitary hours, then
don’t you ever fear the feel of eavesdroppers?”
I have some quibbles. Welles’ show-within-a-show convention was already shopworn when Welles’s wrote it, and adding a few lines about deconstruction and cellphones (already a bit stale themselves), add little comedy or humor. I’d rather cut to the chase. Also, the mad characters should dial it back a bit: they’re often loud and hard to follow, which is too bad, because the delivery muffs some of the most moving and poetic lines in the play. Besides, I’ve seen insane, and that’s not all of it. Insanity is scariest when it whispers, calm and confident as a megalomaniac in a boardroom. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” announces the captain. Ahab is insane.
Interesting production video below. It doesn’t quite capture the power and desolation of this drama – how could it, really? See the real thing for yourself.