Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Moby Dick Rehearsed written by Orson Welles

By Joe Straw

They sat in the quiet shade on a dedicated park bench in Lindberg Park, father and daughter. Sitting so close together.  Enjoying a quiet moment.  And as I walked past them there were words, softly spoken, slightly above whispers.  They sat peacefully, looking into infinite space.   Still, something was missing.  She was not there.  Strangely enough, there appeared to be a light encircling them in their private moment.  It was a soft, loving light. There was a purpose in their silent serenity.

The bench in the park is dedicated for all the right reasons.  It is sacred ground to those who want to remember.

I had not been this excited to see a play since I can’t remember when. Moby Dick Rehearsed written by Orson Welles playing at The Lyric Theatre presented by Whitmore Eclectic and directed by Aliah Whitmore through August 28, 2011.

The night was filled with fascinating impressions and was a visual delight.  This is a fine production so much so that one was thinking about the production: ad infinitum. There are so many thoughts about rehearsals, the craft of acting, and intentions one cannot possibly get it all out on paper.

Moby Dick, the book, was written by Herman Melville and published in 1851, but this is a play about the rehearsal of the play, Moby Dick.

The Whitmore Eclectic group placed this particular setting around 1860, a very interesting choice. It was a time of great division in our nations history and so near the Civil War one would think it would be a consideration in this presentation.  But, that does not appear to be the case.

And how is it possible to see Moby Dick without seeing the whale? With an overactive imagination, one could imagine the white one rising from the watery surface, gripping the whaling boats in its jaw, and dragging the unfortunate God fearing whalers down into their watery grave.  One, without this kind of imagination, will also be able to enjoy this marvelous presentation.

The play starts with The Young Actor playing Ismael (Dustin Seavey) alone on a stage, waiting, softly speaking his lines.

"Call me Ishmael
Some years ago – never mind how long –
I though that I would sail about a little
And see the watery part of the world…
…The image of the un-graspable-the phantom of life;
and this is the key to it all…"

The sudden rise of thunder interrupts Ishmael. The Stage Manager (Aliah Whitmore) inquires about the effectiveness of the sound.

"It’s fine." – The Young Actor

The other actors make their entrances known at varying times.  Each has a personal agenda and mindset: A Middle-Aged Actor (Michael G. Welch), A Serious Actor (Richard Cox), An Old Pro (Tim deZarn), The Cynical Actor (Andrew Patton), The Young Actress (Kate McManus), Actor With The Newspaper (Steve Madar) and The Governor (James Whitmore, Jr.).

“As I understand it, this is to be a sort of reading - or rather a dress rehearsal without costumes or scenery.”  – The Young Actress

And each actor, in their specific ways, gives us an idea of what they are all about and who they are in terms of their style, their status, and their attention to their craft.  The core of their character is practically written on their sleeves.  

The Governor controls the action on stage. He is the leading thespian of the day and always helpful to the young actors who approach.  He is a chameleon who blends in naturally in every environment.  He sets the course of events and creates an atmosphere of calm in a natural calamitous setting. He even has time to run a few lines of King Lear for the young and desperate actress willing to learn the craft.  

And as the professional actors prepare the run through of Moby Dick they are curious about the feasibility of creating the white monster.

The Young Actor thinks that Moby Dick should be given a go and seems to be the driving force behind the reading. He has the advantage, being college educated, and related to The Governor.

The Cynical Actor doesn’t think this whale “thing can be acted”.  Each actor is willing to give it his all, and they do but, still, this is a rehearsal.  (It says so in the title.)

The Governor turns to the audience and instructs us to:

“Piece out the imperfections with your mind;
Think-when we speak of whaleboats, whales and oceans,
That you see them – For ‘tis your thoughts
That now must deck our stage; jumping o’er time;
Turning the accomplishments of many years
Into an hour-glass…”

The Serious Actor, throws this aside, places himself into front of The Governor and…

“…but what I mean is – since we’re playing it together, what exactly do you want me to do?” – The Serious Actor

“Do? Stand six feet away and do your damndest!” – The Governor

(This sounds like a page taken from the Orson Welles’ playbook!)

And as the story continues Ishmael becomes acquainted with Peleg (Tim deZarn), the owner of the Pequod. Peleg discourages him from signing on because Ishmael “wants to see the world”.  He implies that Captain Ahab is moody ever since he came home on that “bloody stump”.

“What is it that so draws me now
To put down for a whaling voyage?” - Ishmael

Father Mapple (James Whitmore, Jr.) sends the men off on their whaling expedition with a sermon about Jonah and The Whale, about sin, devotion, and dying. Surely it is his intention to gather the flock, holus bolus, and warn them about the inherent dangers of the whaling profession

“Beloved shipmates, clinch the last chapter of the first verse of Jonah – “And God has prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.” – Father Mapple

Uh, Oh.  Not a good sign.  In fact, Father Mapple is foreshadowing the hazards of shipping out on the Pequod and that man with the “bloody stump”. 

And as Ishmael becomes further immersed in the community and ready to board he is confronted by Elijah (Michael G. Welch) a runic “old sailor” who has (at one time) engulfed too much seawater and is seemingly not right in the head.  Elijah warns Ishmael about Ahab and the Pequod.

Ishmael:  I’ve just now signed the articles.  Good morning, sir.

Elijah: Anything down there about your soul?

Ishmael: About what?

Elijah:  Mebbe ye haven’t got any. No matter though. Many young feller haven’t got any.

How many signs to you need, Ishmael?  But it is one more warning not heeded as Ishmael gets on the ship for a three-year tour of duty.

All, filled with optimism, the men imitate Ahab and move into position to receive words from Peleg who gives them a pep talk starting with:

"Now then ye misbegotten whale butchers!" - Peleg

It is a talk about being careful, about money, and fornication. 

Still, Ahab remains secluded in his cabin.

Peleg jumps ship before the crew shoves off.  And stranded on the ship without having seen the captain is Starbucks (Richard Cox), Dagoo (Michael G. Welch), Stubb (Steve Madar), Queequeg (Robert Fabiani) Flask (Andrew Patton), Black Pip/Tashtego (Kate McManus) and the carpenter (Tim deZarn).

And as they ship out, there is still no word from the captain. They go on about their jobs under a dark cloud of uncertainty.  And while they work Ahab suddenly appears in the darkness, smelling the sea.

"There are whales hereabouts-I smell ‘em.
Look sharp for whales, all of ye!   And if ye see
A white one - split your lungs for him!" - Ahab

Later, a one mast Ahab struggles to walk across the deck to greet his men.  His intention is clear.  He wants the white whale and will do any thing, a saint or sinner would do, to get him.  He passes the grog and convinces the men to see his perspective. They don’t buy it until he hammers a 16 dollar gold piece into the mast.

"Whoever of ye raises me that same white whale – he gets this big gold ounce, my boys!" – Ahab

This is a fine ensemble cast of an Orson Welles play. Still, one is not sure if the acting was exaggerated because they were “working it out” with each other or the director. If it is actors in a rehearsal the audience must have a truer sense of the rehearsal.  

But, there is a point where an actor calls out for a line (not written in a version I have) but makes this moment clear; this is a rehearsal.  And while this may have happened once, there were other times this point could have been driven home.  In any case, in retrospect, it’s enough to keep your mind going for months.  

To break character into a character from 1860 can be maddening. 

James Whitmore, Jr. gave an inspired performance as The Governor/Father Mapple/and Ahab. He is very stout, and has the use of both legs.  The use of a cane is an interesting choice but visually doesn’t cause one to feel sympathetic to his plight, his anger, and his need for revenge. He is the spitting image of his father with the voice of George C. Scott. Not a bad combination.  This was a marvelous performance.

Dustin Seavey (The Young Actor/Ishmael) is a wonderful actor.  He is very serious in a wonderful role that has him stretched to the core of his foundation.  He is, in effect, telling a story that has already been written.   He must be a writer of sorts and something that he could add to the character.  Seavey is a remarkable Ishmael and tells a story that would make one shiver under the blankets. 

Tim deZarn as The Old Pro/Peleg/Carpenter makes the most of the roles he plays.  His performance as The Old Pro and Peleg is a study in character development and he has a significant understanding of the craft of acting.   As an entrepreneur and the owner of the ship Pequod, drunk and asleep is a choice one should forgo, for a more active choice because there’s a long way to go to make a point, achieve his objective, and keep his sanity all in one breath. But is it a rehearsal choice that will be discarded?  In retrospect, his performance, tells me he has a superior understanding of the material. And he is wonderful to watch in all of his physical self.

Steve Madar as Actor with the Newspaper and especially Stubb gave a very fine performance. He is a hearty actor with many layers of subtext; Madar fits nicely with Stubb as Stubb tries to get Ahab not to clop around on deck with his peg leg. It’s a wonderful scene and a nice performance.  

Robert Fabiani as Queequeg does a fantastic job and has a very good look.  This is his first production with the Whitmore Eclectic and it is a nice fit.

Andrew Verderame, as the assistant stage manager, doesn’t have a lot to say but he makes up for it with the special effects this rehearsal needs.  Off and away in the background he is not very noticeable.  Still he should probably make a mistake along the way to let the audience know it’s only a rehearsal.

Andrew Patton as the Cynical Actor, is not as cynical as he could be, he should take the moment, establish the character and push that button to an extreme.  

Richard Cox as the Serious Actor and as Starbuck is quite wonderful in both roles. He establishes himself in that time and space (1860s) with ease. He understands the craft, sees the conflict, and goes after his objective.  It is a masterful performance.  

Michael G. Welch as the Middle Aged Actor and Dagoo did a fine job and one was particularly enamored with his take on Elijah.  

Kate McManus was the Young Actress, Black Pip and Tashtego.  These are all roles that are critical in this production.  McManuf has a fine voice, singing a couple of numbers, and playing the tambourine to boot! There is more to the scene with her, the carpenter, and Ahab that one is not getting and possibly needs a stronger choice.  Still, I found McManuf to be charming and full of Pip life.

Director Aliah Whitmore has done a remarkable job putting this all together.  She even has a role as the Stage Manager.  These are interesting jobs and the fact she’s on stage the entire time she can observe and take mental notes.  As the director she can physically place actors, during the course of the show and also have actors bound ideas off of her.  

One believes it is Orson Welles intention to highlight and showcase the rehearsal process of material that is practically impossible to perform on stage.  This is the challenge of the material.  Moby Dick - Rehearsed requires an immeasurable focus and a willingness to go all out.

Here are some of my notes about this production. These are only opinions.  (These are dangerous weapons to use only at your discretion.)

The opening with the actors seemed hap hazardous, too fast without letting time to focus and establish each character.

Although this is a rehearsal, orchestrate your whaling vessel boats; let us see the reaction of the men's face (the fear, the excitement, the bravery) before they turn their backs to the audience to pull the oars in chase of the white one. And have your vessels move in alliance with the dialogue. Keep Ahab, Stubb, and Ishmael moving with the whaling vessel.  There should be an orchestration of sorts, move like a dance, or the ballet and choreographed to get the whale.

Also, this particular audience did not know the performance had ended.  They were either mesmerized or waiting for the “actors in the rehearsal” to grab their stuff and leave. There is an ending in the play that was cut out.

“You can take down the curtain.” – The Governor

Also, the sermon, should give us a reason for being there. The objective of Father Mapple should be clear; the parishioners need to find a reason for being in church.  It can be subtle but must be active. It must be more than remembering those who have died in whaling accidents. It may be the last time anyone of them steps into a church. 

Their meeting has a purpose - like the father and daughter on the bench – let us see the action that carries it forward, let us feel it, and breath.  

Grant Dunn was the lighting Designer and Jacob Whitmore was the Production Designer.  The photographs and the program were fantastic.  

The Lyric Theatre is a beautiful theater on LaBrea and the Whitmores are gracious host. One feels quite at home here witnessing this production.

Go see it.  Won’t you?

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