Perhaps I should have been mindful that stepping into any boat with Captain Ahab—who doomed his crew via his maniacal pursuit of revenge upon the white whale that took his leg—was likely to not turn out well. But there I was riding aboard a vessel with Ahab chasing some whale on the opening night of the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere production of Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick.” (It’s scheduled to run through Jan. 12 at the Cambridge theater.)
How could I decline to accompany the accursed captain (played by Tom Nelis) when he singled me out from among the dozen or so audience members selected to join the cast on stage for the show’s second act. He appointed the person, seated on the bench a couple spots down from me, as his first mate. The person next to me was named second mate. And me? “Scullery,” he growled.
So I found myself attired in a red poncho, riding behind Ahab in a silly cartoon of a whaleboat (too short, too round, like a boat from a Disneyland ride) pushed about the stage by none other than the fellow called Ishmael (Manik Choksi). I watched as the crew harpooned the whale (a sculpture of plastic bottles forming the hump of its back) and (fake) blood sprayed across the stage. I was there as they carved up (foam) blubber from its back and someone splashed a bucket of (fake) blood down a grate in the ship’s deck. The wooden deck of this Pequod curves up the back wall and ripples across the ceiling; its focal point a mast with two platforms—at the very top are the masthead hoops, where crewmen scan the sea for whales.
Before long I was at the center of the mist-filled stage. And there I was shaking Ishmael’s hand and playing for the audience’s laughter as we stirred and kneaded plastic tubs of (fake, I hope) whale spermaceti. The cast and audience volunteers joined hands in a circle and sang (something along the lines of) “With a squeeze of the hand I melt along with you.” And my heart sang with kinship for my crewmates all riding this crazy (fake) ship on its opening night. It was swept up in the fun ride. And, despite all odds, I am escaped to tell thee the tale.
But I carry with me sad tidings—for all its ambition and its casting “the Pequod as the America I want to see,” this campy, “Hamilton”-y, three-and-a-half-hour musical enactment of “Moby-Dick,” from the folks behind A.R.T.’s 2015 production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” is rife with flaws. The songs are mostly forgettable—or silly: “I don’t want to sleep with a cannibal.” (I’m not sure how this jaunty tune’s double-entendres of sharing a bed with a cannibal reflected the show’s aim for a more enlightened, revisionist take on Melville.) The first act dawdles and drags. The staging and choreography feel too small, like too much standing around. The puppetry is too cautious, missing opportunities to conjure the leviathan to life.
I really want to love this show, I want to be seduced by its intrepid, revisionist spirit, but…
It does have its moments. “God forbid I be a man, a fully fleshed out character,” Fedallah (Eric Berryman), the mysterious, mystical harpooner whom Ahab has hidden from the crew, complains in a pointed monologue spoken directly to the audience. “It turns out history is fucked up everywhere. But America is a special kind of fucked up.”
He goes on to note: “Oh, Jesus, color-conscious casting. … Aggressively diverse casting. … Outstanding wokeness from a white writer and director of a musical.”
It’s hard not to look around at this moment and suspect that the show has more folks of color on stage than in the packed audience.
But Fedallah’s speech remains the sharpest moment of the play’s “musical reckoning” with “Moby-Dick.” At one point, Ishmael quips “Now we don’t have to kill whales [for oil] anymore because we have fossil fuels” and there are references to a “swirling vortex of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. … I don’t think there is any getting away from all this.” Another song includes the question, “Is God even cisgender?” And “Whales don’t have hate crimes.” Too often the script settles for flippant asides rather than digging deep.
“Fuck religion. Fuck America. Fuck y’all,” Fedallah, the prophet of the play, tells us. “…Part of me does want to see everything burn. … Let mankind be done. Annihilate. Whoosh.”
The show finally finds the emotion in the story at the very end of the second act, after Ahab has threatened the chief mate Starbuck (Starr Busby) with a pistol. (Though the show seems not to register that it feels considerably different when the mad white boss points his gun at a black female actor than at the white man in the original book. Also from here on, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the broad outlines of the novel’s plot—so spoilers ahead.) Starbuck climbs up into the mast platform. “Terrible and cruel old man, yet in his eyes I read a sadness,” Starbuck heartbreakingly sings. “God, please help me help this man. I can’t leave him. Something has tied me to this man. … I hope he never finds what he is looking for.” Blackout, then intermission.
But “Moby-Dick” loses its emotional connection again in the second half—until the Pequod encounters another whaling ship called Rachel. “Have you seen a whale boat adrift,” the captain (Dawn L. Troupe) asks. “You must help us. We lost a whaleboat chasing Moby-Dick. … His hump dragged them away in the darkness.” But Ahab only cares for pursuing the whale: “No, I won’t do it. We have no time.” Captain of the Rachel: “My boy, a little lad of 12 years old was among those he dragged away. … Let me charter your ship for 40 hours. I will pay.” Ahab: “No, captain, I will not do it. He’s gone.”
Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin make an unfortunate habit of cutting away or disrupting scenes right as emotion is finally building.
Finally, “Thar she blows,” Ahab announces, quiet, awestruck. “A hump like a snow hill. It is Moby-Dick.” But the ensuing climactic chase is confusingly staged, not making it clear that they’ve harpooned the whale. (Some puppetry could have really helped here.) The whale charges the ship, we’re told, and drowns the crew.
“They all died,” Ishmael says. “…I treaded water as the ship sank, kicked my leg, and kept afloat.” He sits atop a shipmate’s coffin until, he tells us, the sail of a ship appears above the horizon, then draws near. “It was the devious-searching Rachel that in her search for her missing children only found another orphan.”
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