Actor/Director Orson Welles was larger than life, so it seems fitting that he would take on the enormous task of adapting Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which was originally published in 1851—all 635 pages of it. The story is considered by many to be one of the great American novels—and has probably the most famous opening line of modern literature: “Call me Ishmael.”
Norristown’s Iron Age Theatre Company is presenting Welles’ 1955 stage version, MOBY DICK REHEARSED, now thru the 24th of March, directed by John Doyle and Randall Wise. Generally speaking when I have entered the company’s space at the Centre Theatre I have been greeted by a simple yet intriguing set design that does much to inform me about the production, but this time Doyle and Wise were keeping us in the dark—almost literally. One could only make out nebulous outlines of something in the large playing area. So, more on that later.
Welles decided to give Melville’s already crowded story a framing device: a troupe of actors (à la his Mercury Theatre Company) is called together by their actor/manager, not to rehearse their upcoming production of King Lear, but to indulge him in a reading of his theatrical version of Melville’s epic tale. The ensemble is seen arriving as assorted members of the company, engaging in the usual pre-rehearsal chit-chat as they wait for “The Governor”. On comes Welles’ alter ego and, after a minimum of exposition, the lights come up to reveal the beginnings of a stage set that would serve as the deck of the Pequod. The beauty of that “codicil” to the title—rehearsed—is that this design concept totally works. Since you’re only supposed to be practicing a version of the story, you can have scaffolding to represent the rigging of the boat and paint cans sitting around to represent buckets the sailors would use on deck. It’s a clever bit of stagecraft, and the ensemble does some wonderful movement work creating the world of a whaling ship at sea. But I just had a really difficult time getting into the script…
Melville’s prose is denser than Shakespeare’s and his language almost as archaic. There are long convoluted passages that just lost me, unfortunately. I kept wishing Welles had done something to bring the material more towards a 20th century style to make it accessible to today’s audiences. I have to confess that I had not read the source material prior to seeing this production; perhaps that would have helped. But—shouldn’t a work be able to stand on its own, and not require extensive study of its inspiration to be understood?
That is not to fault the performers or the directors. Nicely detailed work is delivered by all; you can sense the commitment to the piece. Anthony M. Giampetro is ominous as Captain Ahab and suitably egotistical as “The Governor.” Matching him is Adam Altman as Ishmael. They are two strong anchors for the remaining ensemble members to shift from character to character around. The two distaff members of the company, Michelle Pauls and Claire Golden Drake are called upon most of the performance to play assorted sailors, and Pip the Negro cabin boy. They do an admirable job. Rounding out the company are Chuck Beishl (Stubb & Queequeg), Richard Bradford (Masthead & Dagoo), David Fiebert (assorted sailors), Luke Moyer (Starbuck), Ray Sarencini (Stage Manager, Peleg & Mapple) and Markus Zanders (Flask & Tashego). All of these people have done several productions with Iron Age, so there is a clear sense of teamwork. They support each other well.
Directors Doyle and Wise keep the pace brisk, telling their story in a little over two hours. They have devised some inventive staging that their actors execute with wonderful precision. Mr. Sarencini and Ms. Pauls provide live sound effects and underscoring, with original music composed by Mr. Fiebert. Wise provides great costumes for each performer and Doyle lights it all with the appropriate atmosphere.
There is a lot of talent and dedication on display in MOBY DICK REHEARSED. I personally wish Welles had provided them with a better script. It’s worth the trip to Norristown to check out the stagecraft of the company.
MOBY DICK REHEARSED
by Herman Melville
Adapted by Orson Welles
Directed by John Doyle & Randall Wise
March 1—24, 2013
Iron Age Theatre Company @ The Centre Theater
208 DeKalb Street
Norristown, PA 19401