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[Theater reviews]

Whale scales
The New Rep sets Melville to music


Music by Doug Katsaros. Libretto by Mark St. Germain. Direction and musical staging by Rick Lombardo. Music direction by Janet Roma. Additional choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Set design by Kristin Loeffler. Lighting by Franklin Meissner Jr. Costumes by Toni Bratton Elliott. With Jim Ansart, Dann B. Black, Cyrus Akeem Brooks, Geoffrey P. Burns, Scott Davis, Brian De Lorenzo, Job Emerson, Nathan Gehan, Michael Kreutz, Robin Lister, Sean McGuirk, Brad Peloquin, and Mark Peters. At New Repertory Theatre, Wednesday through Sunday through June 3.

The task of translating Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick to the stage is as fraught with danger as the perilous journey of the Pequod on its quest for the legendary white whale. The book looms as an icon of the American psyche; it’s regarded as the quintessential mirror of the troubled national character — a mixture of courage, spirituality, and lust for vengeance and profit. And it doesn’t break into a series of scenes, depending for its effect on the poetry of the language combined with descriptions of what the men of the Pequod are thinking rather than on conversations among them. When the men do speak, it is often in long monologues that qualify more as literary musings than as dialogue.

So what attracted the major collaborators on Moby Dick, an American Opera? Melville’s characters. There’s Ishmael, both narrator and member of the crew; his partner, Queequeg, the dark-skinned, tattoo’d African prince of enormous strength and personality; Mr. Starbuck, the impeccable Quaker who is the first mate; Pip, the merry cabin boy; and, above all, Captain Ahab, the madness-racked tyrant who lost his humanity along with his leg somewhere in the Pacific waters. But like the 1956 John Huston film, this musicalization of the story from composer Doug Katsaros and librettist Mark S. Germain lacks tension. After the characters are introduced, the crew sail the endless seas, and there’s too much down time before the predestined finale.

Where the New Rep production succeeds is in the physicality of its visual effects, both in the setting and in the appearance of the characters. Kristin Loeffler, the scenic designer, has imagined the entire theater as the ship, hanging working riggings from every rafter. The ropes and pulleys on deck are manned by the crew, which adds the dimension of sound as well as movement to the scenery. The audience is seated on four sides, including on the raised stage, around a center space where the deck is constructed as a marvel of versatility. It breaks apart into benches and tables when needed for the tavern scene in New Bedford, and at the end it’s lashed together to create a turntable that is hauled around by the seamen. Director Rick Lombardo has blocked the action in masterful fashion, using every level from ground to ceiling as acting stations. Moreover, the way the 13-man cast makes a tight fit in the small space re-creates some of the claustrophobia of a small ship adrift on the ocean.

The cast also looks the part, particularly Dann B. Black as tattoo’d Queequeg, Mark Peters as Captain Ahab in his cravat and the long coat that ends at the top of his white peg leg, and the sailors in the disheveled dress of men too long at sea. But the performances are less impressive. The decision to avoid miking means that the modulations of emotion often register as swallowed words or low-energy delivery, except in the cases of Black, Job Emerson as Reverend Mapple, and Cyrus Akeem Brooks, the seventh-grader who turns in a fine performance as Pip. Peters is a bit too kind and a little too sane as Ahab. The cast sings well in the ensemble numbers, finding a power that is lacking in the individual performances.

Katsaros and St. Germain have constructed an “American opera” that is sung through, with practically no dialogue. This approach would be a virtue if the lyrics carried the story line, which they do not, or if the language were as filled with metaphor as Melville’s is. In fact, you’ll be lost if you don’t know the book. The score, played live by six musicians at the side of the stage, has few memorable melodies. An exception is the lovely “Every Morning,” in which Starbuck recalls his wife back on shore; it’s well sung by Michael Kreutz. The other impressive turn is the sailors’ hornpipe that’s danced in the New Bedford tavern before Ishmael and Queequeg sail on a small packet to Nantucket to sign on for the voyage of the whaler.

By the end, I was sitting back in my seat, put off rather than pulled in by the characters and their fate. The book, despite its meandering manner of getting to the foreshadowed end, has a way of hooking the reader. Here it’s not until Brad Peloquin, as captain of the Rose, brings his fine voice to “The Rachel” and begs the Pequod for help in finding his son that any heart comes into the production. Mostly this Moby Dick feels like a history-geography lesson rather than a universal truth delivered in time to save us from our obsessions.

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001