The Rogue Theatre oozes courage.
Really — the company took on the task of adapting Herman Melville’s masterpiece, “Moby Dick,” for the stage. How gutsy is that?
It could have been a disaster. It was not. It was a compelling piece of theater.
Cynthia Meier and Holly Griffith adapted the novel about Captain Ahab, the whale hunter out to exact revenge on the massive sperm whale that bit his leg off on an earlier voyage. Adapting it is no small feat: the book is almost 2,000 pages long.
What the two did was dispense with Melville’s many chapters detailing the minutiae of whale hunting and stripped the story down to the tale of Ahab and the men who sail with him in search of the great Moby Dick. And they did this while maintaining Melville’s lyrical language and vivid storytelling. The script also included, as the book did, big ideas about such things as revenge, God, fate versus choice, and humans’ disregard for nature.
The only deviation from the book was the addition of three fates, who step into different characters and, more importantly, underscore the inevitability of what Ahab’s thirst for revenge will bring.
This, no doubt, was a monster to direct: It has a cast of 16, a whale so large it can destroy a ship with the flick of a fin, songs, and a story that many know intimately. Meier was not daunted; she shaped a play that was marked with grace and clarity. The narrator of the tale is Ishmael, and Aaron Shand imbued him with humility and low-key passion, which served the character and the story well.
Captain Ahab is an egomaniac obsessed with revenge. Joseph McGrath gave him a persuasive command, but that obsession was too subdued to give us the full horror of his chosen task.
Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate and the conscience of the story, was deeply conflicted and repelled by the actions of the captain he feels he must obey. Ryan Parker Knox made the character’s turmoil palpable. This cast was strong all around, including Jeffrey Baden, who played the tender-hearted cannibal Queequeg; Owen Saunders as the fearless boy (and he has a few dance steps that will wow you); Matt Walley as the good-humored Stubb, and Bryn Booth, Patty Gallagher and Holly Griffith as the fates that glide through the story.
There were a few moments that seemed like uncontrolled chaos, but there were also moments of serene beauty, such as the near-the-end image of men drowning in the ocean. And then there was this, before the play even begins: The cast playing the boat’s crew gather on stage and sing the sea shanty “Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her.” It was not part of Melville’s book, but it was electric.
If you’ve read “Moby Dick,” you won’t be upset at what you are missing in this strong production. If you haven’t read it, The Rogue’s version will make its pages enticing.