How do you stage a whale? A shipwreck? An 800 page novel?
You don’t. You stage the pieces and invoke the imagination of the audience. Steve Burch’s adaptation of Moby-Dick does just that: he strips Melville’s 1851 novel down to its bones and then breathes new life into it, a two-hour tapestry of Ahab’s desire. Directed by Seth Panitch, the University of Alabama’s production of Moby-Dick highlights the gaps inherent in any act of storytelling, whether that story is the great American novel or one’s own memories.
The play opens with the ocean waves, a dozen dancers in blue bodysuits swaying to the rhythms of drums and violins. Into this gentle tempest steps an old man leaning on a crutch. “Call me Ishmael,” he says, and the dancers strip him of crutch, coat, and hat, leaving a young man behind. The story begins, carried along by absences and symbols: the dancers’ bodies that serve as wave, wind, the flight of the harpoon, and even the corpse of a whale; a prow, a stern, a few oarlocks, and a backdrop of rigging that form the outline of a ship, variously combined and scattered throughout the play; and a whale’s skeleton that supports a crow’s nest, a bare memorial to Moby-Dick.
Burch retells Melville’s story through a set of interlocking narratives. The first half of the play focuses on the budding friendship between Ishmael (David Bolus) and Queequeg (Michael Luwoye), a friendship that surpasses racial and cultural differences. Bolus and Luwoye have such chemistry that their scenes provide a comic and heartwarming center to the play, a counterpoint to Ahab’s (played by Ted Barton) rage that lets the audience forget, if only for a moment, the downward spiral of the tragedy.. This center cannot hold, however: Ahab draws the second half of the play along in his wake. Barton’s stage presence is formidable, and those that stand against Ahab, appealing to his reason (Starbuck, Amy Handra) or his pity (Pip, Thaddeus Fizpatrick), while they can command the stage in their own right, can never command the course of the play. Ahab will have his heart’s desire, and Barton fills the stage with Ahab’s bellows, nearly conjuring up the sea and the tempest with his Lear-like fury.
Nothing is complete here, neither sea nor ship nor story, and that’s the point. There are gaps: the fragmented scenes held together in Ishmael’s memory; the racial divide between the Christian sailors and the cannibal harpooners; the name “Ahab,” a frightful reputation that precedes the captain and a missing leg that haunts him. Yet Ahab’s desire for vengeance sweeps him forward and we are carried along in his wake, sailors and spectators alike. What holds a man together in the face of a blind universe? Hatred? Friendship? Language? The play tries on each answer in turn, but in the end Ahab is swept underneath the spectre of Moby-Dick, an expanse of white cloth that the dancers stretch across the stage: he is devoured, the ship is scattered, and only Ishmael lives to tell the tale. Yet the final image of the play is not Ishmael’s desperate attempt to make sense of Ahab’s madness or his own loss. It is the sea, swaying gently to its own rhythms. The violins and the drums give way to whalesong, a sound that feels both alien and ethereal after the defiant shouts of Ahab. Unlike Ahab, however, the whalesong is complete. Whole.