'Moby Dick' strikes a contemporary chord

Perseverance takes its production of 'Moby Dick' - which touches on Alaska issues - around the state

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

Herman Melville penned an eerily prophetic line in "Moby Dick" 150 years ago.

The line jumped out at New York City theater director Leon Ingulsrud as he prepared Perseverance Theatre's adaptation of the novel for an upcoming statewide tour.

"It's at the beginning - he's talking about how insignificant it is for Ishmael to be going on this voyage. These other events he compares it to are a grand contested election for the presidency of the United States and a bloody battle in Afghanistan," said Leon Ingulsrud, who adapted the classic novel for the stage and co-directed the show.

Ingulsrud said these references were relevant to Melville in the 1840s and are uncanny today.

Perseverance Theatre is reprising "Moby Dick" for a tour in February. The Alaska tour opens with a single Juneau performance, Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

"Moby Dick" has proved timely in other ways, as well, and Perseverance is using those connections to spark discussions and community forums in Barrow, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

"We're using the arts to stimulate dialogue," said Perseverance Producing Director Jeffrey Herrmann. "We're providing a forum for people to explore these issues in a fashion that is different than they are used to."

With a $55,000 grant from the arts advocacy group "Americans for the Arts," Perseverance is using the "Moby Dick" tour as a springboard for discussions on subsistence, the urban-rural divide and the environment versus economy issue.

 

"We're not taking sides, but it's apparent from newspapers across the state that these are issues people are grappling with," Herrmann said. "There will be call-in dialogues on radio, group discussions, articles and stories on the issues. We'll seed the atmosphere around the state as we're traveling with the show."

"Moby Dick" was created as a play last spring at Perseverance. Artistic Director Peter DuBois said the theater did not want to simply retell Melville's classic novel. DuBois and Ingulsrud worked with the six-member cast to create the show, drawing upon American history, Inupiat tradition and modern whaling practice. DuBois spent time in Barrow preparing for the show, interviewing Inupiat whalers and even helping to butcher a whale as part of his research.

Andrew MacLean, an Inupiat actor from Barrow, brought stories, songs and dances to the production. Cast members Sara Waisanen, Jake Waid, Ishmael Hope and Darius Jones return to the show. Owen Stokes is the only original cast member not participating in the tour.

Key scenes from the book are enacted, interspersed with vignettes on whales and whaling, stories from Barrow and scenes from Nantucket, Mass., America's 19th-century whaling capital. Several scenes recreate conversations between DuBois and Inupiat whaling captain Deano Olemaun. Much of the dialogue is straight from Melville.

"We used Melville's structure," DuBois said of the novel. "There's a very simple story that's being told about a man pursuing a whale. In the course of that narrative, if you think of it horizontally, he then takes these vertical dives."

Those dives don't advance the plot, but they do enrich the tale, DuBois added.

In Perseverance's "Moby Dick," all the actors take a turn as Ishmael, Melville's narrator, and each plays several characters from the novel. The actors also play Inupiat and New England whalers, teachers, historians, Nantucket whalers' wives and about two dozen other characters in a variety of vignettes.

A new, traveling set has been designed to go on the road with the show. Ingulsrud said they've reconceived the production, adapting it for a five-member cast and building on its strengths.

"Most effect was interplay between the Barrow material and Melville stuff, and we've focused more on that relationship and kept that clearer," Ingulsrud said.

He said the new "Moby Dick" is more compact. Some scenes have been cut, some shortened and some extended. "Overall its feels to me now like it's streamlined," Ingulsrud said. "It's a leaner, meaner production."

Ingulsrud, of the New York-based Saratoga International Theatre Institute, collaborated with Perseverance three years ago on "Short Stories."

"Moby Dick" was published in 1851, the culmination of years of work by Melville. It was not a literary or commercial success at the time, but when later championed by 20th-century writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, its influence became profound.



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