Death to Whiteness . . .
Adapted by Orson Welles
Directed by Marc Silberschatz
Richmond Shepard Theater, Through March 25th
Produced by Twenty Feet Productions
Review by Louis Lopardi 3/08/07
An Origami master from MIT competing in a contest humbly presented his entry: A great two-masted brig under full sail, being attacked by a giant squid, - all crafted out of a single sheet of folded paper. On a bare stage in a simple black-box theater, Marc Silberschatz and his company boldly created the vast and seething world of Melville's Moby Dick - as re-imagined by Orson Welles. The two events were astoundingly similar - an entire world created in microcosm from a simple blank slate.
Welles deftly stripped the story of all but the most essential dramatic and mythic elements, and arranged the staging for an obvious ‘rehearsal' stage (a King Lear rehearsal, in fact) bereft of props and large set pieces. A real whale and ships and so forth are redundant. The whale is, as Ishmael points out, "more than real" - It is a great allegorical beast, destined to haunt all our nightmares. Not having it visible, but merely hinted at - as by John Ivy's deft Sound Design - makes it truly archetypal and far more portentous.
Welles starred in the play's triple lead role, and produced it for BBC television in 1955 - just before himself playing Father Mapple in the well known Huston film with Gregory Peck. Broadway gave us the play with Rod Steiger in late 1962 (it ran for a month). Twenty Feet Productions gives us the Welles play as it was surely meant to be seen - up close, personal, and relying on the majestic forces of acting and imagination rather than special effects.
Marc Silberschatz provided clear and engaging Stage Direction, oddly better in the crowded moments where all was always clear. In rare moments, it erred to the side of excess (dealing with large casts of uneven technical backgrounds; excess is safer than finesse). He gave the production sweep and precision, while playing up the dualism of simple elemental forces - as incarnated for instance in the apposite teams of rowers (or worshipers in the chapel), and ultimately the rowers VS the shipbound sailors in the climactic scene.
The brilliant Seth Duerr (in the triple Welles role of the Arrogant Director, Fr. Mapple, & Captain Ahab) was right in his element - be it the starry brightness of a madman in primal quarrel with the elements, or a sad voice breaking on his intimate "Stand close to me; let me look into a human eye" - one of many Ahab-Starbuck moments. (The Welles play shifts the parallel dynamic of the story more to Ahab and Starbuck and away from Ahab and Ishmael.)
Tim Scott, a quietly profound stage presence, played a questing and questioning Ishmael. Mickey Ryan played an intimate and sincere Starbuck. Nicole Benisch is superb, but to my taste misdirected; we saw plenty of the artful actress, but never quite saw the young "Pip" she was to be portraying. Justin Birdsong as Flask and others used his always fully supported voice with authority. And another with voice control, David Skigen as Stubb was good at acting between the lines - always a plus for supporting-role characters. Several in the cast were prone to odd pauses in mid-line which hopefully will vanish as the run continues.
A crisp, articulate sound design by John D. Ivy - perhaps burdened only by some grandiose orchestrations at the end, ill-fitting the minimalist brilliance of the rest of the evening. The ‘night plume' vision - the "silvery jet" of the whale's venting as seen by moonlight alone- became a glittering soundscape, echoed at other moments in a macabre stylistic variation when whale ‘songs' were added to the shipboard creakings and groanings.
Simple and evocative Lighting Design was by Dana Sterling, working imaginatively with a more heady compliment of equipment than I've usual seen from her. Throughout there was highly attentive Stage Management (Jen McClenahan) and superb Technical Direction (Marc Silberschatz?).
On a bare stage, starkly lit, with no props or set, the metaphysics of the moment were sweeping and palpable in the Ahab-Carpenter scene, in which Ahab beckons the carpenter to imagine an "Entire living thing standing there." This simple production is, simply, everything great and inspiring theater should be. We were fortunate to see an ‘entire living thing' on a simple black box theater stage.