Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
Here you have playwright Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”) adapting Herman Melville (“Moby Dick”) for the stage by way of William Shakespeare (“King Lear”). The results are everything you would expect – intense, brilliant, filled with human angst. The one thing “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” thankfully is not is too long. Welles has taken a 600+ page book and brought it to the stage in blank verse in just a smidge over two hours.
And they are two hours very well spent at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Director Eric Hill has created a perfect collaboration with set designer Rob Odorisio, lighting designer Dan Kolowitz, and a well meshed ensemble of actors to bring Welles drama to life.
Of the three great writers instrumental in this play’s creation, it is probably Welles who is least familiar to modern audiences, although he died a scant 14 years ago. A man of great brilliance and drive, he had his early success in the theatre – including some nationally acclaimed Shakespearean productions before his 25th birthday.
Welles was probably the ideal person to adapt Melville’s 1851 novel of revenge. Melville laces his novel with biblical names and references, and we in the Berkshires are all familiar with the legend that he wrote Moby Dick while looking out his window at Arrowhead at Mt. Greylock and its surrounding mountains, which reminded him of the back of a whale. Welles sees Melville through the eyes of Shakespeare’s doomed King Lear and sets “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” in a late 19th century theatre where a company which is producing Lear is convinced by a young memeber of its ranks to run through his adaptation of “Moby Dick”.
As that Young Actor (later Ishmael) Tom Story manages to look a great deal like the young Orson Welles, and not a little like Melville himself. Story’s character launches and narrates the play, as Melville’s Ishmael narrates the book, but if anyone gets a star turn in this production it is David Purdham as Captain Ahab. It is his passion for vengance that drives him and the entire crew of the Pequod (with the exception of Ishmael) to their deaths in pursuit of the great white whale, Moby Dick. Purdham’s Ahab is not a monster, but a man, whose watery death stands as a monument to the emptiness of vengance – won or lost.
There are no duds in this cast which often moves and acts as one – creating oceans, whales, ships and oars where none actually exist. This is an intensely theatrical production as Welles was an intensely theatrical man.
Odorisio has literally built the insides of a theatre inside the BTF’s Main Stage House. In the BTF’s first offering this season Odorisio’s set literally stole the show, this time it supports and surrounds but never overpowers. It is Kotlowitz’s lighting which works miracles in influencing mood and manner on the stage. His effects for the underwater scene after the first encounter with Moby Dick, coupled with Hill’s direction and the actors’ performances are not to be missed.
For some unknown reason the BTF has billed this as a play for the whole family. They are mistaken. Just as you wouldn’t ask anyone under 14 to read Moby Dick, don’t expect any child under that age to sit through this play. A few in the opening night audience made that request of their children and it was a mistake.
“Moby Dick – Rehearsed” runs through July 31 on the Main Stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. The show runs just over two hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-298-5576.
Copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999