First and foremost the fact that Theatre Coup d’Etat has presented this whale of a tale in a 2 hour show, including music and movement, is a successful feat in and of itself. This production tells the epic Melville story of Moby Dick, with astounding visuals and traditional, as well as, original live music. A little personal history to note before I begin. I come from New England. Specifically from the shores of Eastern Connecticut with familial ties to Mystic Seaport, the largest maritime museum in the country. Established in 1929 by the "Marine Historical Association,” its fame came with the acquisition of the Charles W. Morgan in 1941. The Morgan was active in whaling for 80 years. She is the only surviving wooden whaler from 2,700 historical whalers that operated in the United States whaling fleet.
Not only do I have many memories of visiting my grandfather at his shop, the resident figurehead carver at the Seaport, but my mother spent some time as the chanty singer on board the Morgan, singing the old songs, telling stories and recreating the myths of a life at sea. (Ironically, my mother was the first and last female chanty singer on board, as women were not allowed on whaling ships due to them being bad luck. Therefore, for the sake of authenticity, her replacement, when she left, was, of course, a man...more on this later.)* These stories, music and New England history, tradition and pride have always been an integral part of my childhood and this production did a wonderful job of bringing those memories back to me, even sitting in a small dance studio set in the middle of the landlocked Minnesota tundra.
The ambience created when walking into the Fallout Arts Initiative Co-op is immediate as Cellist, Composer and Musical director, Jamie White Jachimiec, leads her small group of multifaceted musicians in the “old tunes” of the time. Encouraged to partake in a beverage, (the local ‘tavern’ serving rum of course), you walk into the space though center stage and into a seemingly foggy wharf, with wooden boards, wrought iron balcony, a set of stairs, a ladder, and of course nets and “rigging.” In my experience with Coup d’Etat’s work they have a knack for transforming site specific locales and this is no exception.
Proceed with caution, (though I will do my best to avoid spoilers), the backstory is given to us in pantomime, saving us from the trend of the author’s tendency to wax Dickensian. We meet the notorious CAPTAIN AHAB, (Adam Scarpello), in a flashback and instantly understand his “ish.” Meet ISHMAEL, Eva Gemlo. “She” (yes SHE)* is young, excited and ready for a real life adventure, we will soon discover, SO much so she’s willing to brave Nantucket and the notorious North East to seek it out. Finally finding her way to PETER COFFIN’s establishment (a gutsy Sue Gerver), she meets a whole crew of characters of different ages, sexes, and ethnicities that punctuate the production’s theme of diversity. I appreciate this in a modern adaptation and it fits well with the multicultural presence that is present in that actual text, often overlooked. *It is also a refreshing twist to have so many female characters introduced. Adapter and director, James Napoleon Stone, makes a bold choice having the women actually playing women in a time and in an industry that staunchly and intentionally left them out. He changes pronouns according to how each individual actor identifies and it absolutely works. It’s not a statement, it’s not imposing anything on the show or the characters, it’s simple and believable and becomes a necessary part of this mercurial world.
The textual storytelling in the first half is the strongest, in my opinion, as relationships are well established, personalities revealed and the mysterious obsession and attitude of the dreaded Ahab set up. The set excellently morphs from location to location with a mere six storage boxes, the aforementioned ropes and a few props. The music and lightening can and should share credit for this too. The acting is solid (the various accents go in and out), with a major highlight in “though she be but little, she is fierce” QUEEQUEG (Antonia Perez), who though small in stature commands the stage and embraces her persona and broken vernacular to the enth! Very fun to watch.
Ahab’s in real life entrance is sadly a little underwhelming and from there on in I relied heavily on the choreography and movement to solidify what was actually going on in the story. From the long boats to the main ship, whale attacks and capsizing vessels to successful kills and blubber acquisitions, I was drawn into the dangers and trials of this life at sea. A scene where ISHMAEL, and FLASK (Craig James Hostetler) execute a MacGyver like rescue of a drowning QUEEQUEG is downright action movie epic! Kelly Nelson, who serves as movement captain and supervisor(?) (I’m butchering her title I apologize), and collective cast is committed and really takes the visual storytelling to the next level, because of this I always had an idea of where we were in the text. It should be noted that Nelson makes a darn good dying whale too! The Lighting Design by Mark Kieffer is mood appropriate and his washing the set in blue light in addition to some aptly placed revolving gobos represent the undulating ocean, almost allowing it a character of it’s own. The ending though abrupt, is strikingly beautiful, and is a nice harken back to the opening pantomime.
To conclude, Moby Dick: An Original Adaptation, is worth your evening investment. It runs two hours without the added intermission and though long for the modern day attention span, has enough to keep you invested until the end. See it for the story and stay for the optical and auditory stimulation. Endorsed by this tried and true New Englander, Mr. Stone, Ms. White Jachimiec, Ms. Nelson and crew, are to be commended for this honestly bleak, yet inherently romantic, adaptation of a very dense and “dusty” novel.