Perseverance's 'Moby Dick': Panache or tomfoolery?

Theater review

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

To stage a literary masterpiece is to court grief, and invite the howls of critics who are well versed in the text, as well as the rest of us who may fake it for cocktail conversation or the occasional newspaper review. To try to stage "Moby Dick," America's most complex novel, would take either great confidence or impressive foolhardiness (or a measure of both.)

Leon Ingulsrud - the co-director of Perseverance's "Moby Dick" along with Peter DuBois - recognizes the absurdity of such an attempt. They opt instead for a theatrical meditation on the novel, which incorporates Inupiaq stories, Shakespeare, the Bible and hand puppets. This amalgamation captures some of the complexity of Melville's classic whale tale.

Scenes are presented, not explained or judged, just as in the novel. The drama, obsession, psychological analysis and academic digressions are all there, as well as the comedy, which you may well have missed when you were first forced to plow through Melville's mystical ocean in senior high.

There is an enormous amount going on in this play, at all times, around and behind and between the spectators. A physical metaphor for the audience's pivotal role is seating them on the stage for the first act. One doesn't just passively watch this play. One must actively determine, from moment to moment, what it means.

The burden of interpretation is placed directly on the playgoer. Because of this approach, no two people who come to see this production of "Moby Dick" will see the same play. Some will see a high-seas adventure, others the conflict between Starbuck's lack of conviction and Ahab's passionate intensity. There is an implicit but not belabored comparison between the "shares" the New England whalers receive for their services on board and the "sharing" of the Inupiaq whalers. Innocent Ishmael's journey to the brink of the abyss could be another possible theme.

Others, confused by the lack of signposts, will see only a ragout.

Personally, the play I saw was a thought-provoking, anti-fascist screed about the leveling of hierarchies and a yen toward oneness, which in less-mystical terms can be thought of as rumination on community building. Your mileage may vary.

The ensemble members wear similar greatcoats, and interchange characters, which destroys any differentiation between leading and supporting roles. They receive creation credits with Melville, Ingulsrud, DuBois and Thurber. Even the politics and the creation of this production were inclusive, democratic, and a joint effort. (This beast has no head! Or rather, 20.) This contrasts sharply with the chain of command on a whaling boat, where the captain's word, even a mad captain's, is law.

"Moby Dick" is a fitting capstone to Perseverance's "American Season." Great art is open to any number of interpretations. See "Moby Dick" to try out some of yours.

Bob Dylan, who turns 60 today, once wrote "... just remember, tho, when you evaluate a piece of butter, you are talking about yourself, so you'd just better sign your name."

Call me Christenson.

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