by Jeff Grygny
Moby Dick is an immense book, a metaphysical doorstop of a novel. It’s not just an adventure story about whaling, though it certainly is that, too. Herman Melville was there, recording the emotional, economic, and spiritual implications of this world-shattering changes as America was feverishly inventing the modern era of itself. Dale Gutzman, in his program notes for Call Me Ishmael, his adaptation of Melville’s epic of madness on the vasty deep, admits up front that the novel is impossible to stage. So what is this play? What we see is a stylish, sometimes funny, sometimes monotonous, often brilliant cinematic dream that touches on ideas about religion, power, nature, race, culture, and man’s futile efforts to control the world, to name the most obvious. It may be the closest thing to pure philosophy ever performed on a Milwaukee stage.
The literary theorist Jacques Derrida coined the phrase “white mythology” for the tendency of powerful elites to claim that their rule is natural and really the only way things could possibly be, commanded by the inarguable word of a deity whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Moby Dick had refuted white mythology more than a century earlier: all it takes is a little crack in the sacred order to let chaos come pouring in. Melville painted a picture of what music critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America,” based on first-hand experience: the harsh Puritanism, the capitalist exploitation, the patriarchal hierarchy, and the strange society of men, slamming against the immensity of nature with hubristic fury.
How in heaven do you stage such a monster? Gutzman gives us fragments of the story, like an art film or collage (hence the show’s subtitle “a hallucination”) with its own theatrical vocabulary. Black walls and clothing, pale faces lit by bright flashlights, spotlights and lanterns create the mood of an antique engraving; wood, rope, and yards of raw fabric create the whaler’s world, a light-and-shadow realm of Protestant theology and can-do capitalism. As in the novel, we see the story through the eyes of an innocent youth. Jake Russell plays Ishmael with all the trepidation, eagerness, and wonder of an introspective soul. His first encounter with the wild world comes in the form of his bed-mate in the port side inn, an islander named Queegqueg, played with fine bemused stoicism by Nathan Danzer, whose broad, tattoo-covered chest and back are the show’s most impressive special effects. Their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play: an openly romantic same-sex couple in an all-male society that operates far from civilization’s norms. In this version, the Pequod becomes a kind of gay utopia, its cramped sweaty spaces recall the aesthetics of a twentieth-century leather bar. Ishmael spends his spare time jotting his meditations in a notebook, pondering life, the sea, and Queegqueg’s tattoos, which represent for him a primordial writing containing mysteries that the printed lines of the Bible can’t possibly convey.
The play hews closely to the book’s narrative, unfolding in painterly tableaux, meditative moments, and exciting action scenes. Sometimes the stage seethes with movement as the players pantomime the actions of sea-craft and the hunt. The whalers go to their work with the gusto of professional athletes, especially Teddi Gardener as an exuberant harpooner and Jim Feeley as an old salt who relishes no land-bound life. Only the first mate, played by the low-key Mohammed ElBsat, shows misgivings about their voyage. James Strange plays the role of Ahab with more wounded pathos than Old Testament rage, but there is still the atmosphere of doom, the sickening sense that no one is in charge—or worse, that the authority, be it captain or God, is mad, and the ship/universe careens forth by no rules that reason can comprehend. It’s a feeling quite familiar to many Americans these days, don’t you think? Yet there is a strange stasis at the center of this play: from Ishmael’s musings, to the well-worn plot, to Russell’s moody cello soundscape. Not even some hearty shanties composed and performed by Shayne Steliga and Tom Koehn, can dispel the emptiness at the heart of this maritime melodrama.
As the Pequod careens further into Ahab’s monomania, the style of the play shifts into something like performance art, or a Tarkovsky film, where mundane objects take on uncanny meanings. A string of Christmas lights becomes Saint Elmo’s fire; a storm is signaled by a mere utterance. The simplicity of the stagecraft is as if to shrug at the impossibility of the task; even with the budget of Broadway, would any plastic whale or high-definition projection bring us closer to the novel’s sublime inconceivable? The inevitable failure is cooked into the attempt; as Queegqueg and Ahab make futile stabs at a painted eye simply rendered a large piece of cloth, they seem like puppets, no more capable of killing the great white whale than Melville’s book can be adequately staged. Maybe unconvincing theater is all we can ever muster in our attempts to conquer savage being.
We could see Call Me Ishmael as a rite of passage. People like Queegqueg became adults by being ritually isolated in a dark, closed space where they were symbolically devoured by a terrifying monster, then reborn as mature members of the tribe. Perhaps the most important mystery of the modern tribe is this: all our certainties are written on water. Nowadays we don’t believe in rites or cosmic monsters. All we have to explain the world is science; and art, to lead us out of our cultural trance and bring us face-to-face with the unknowable universe.
Off the Wall Theatre presents
Call Me Ishmael
adapted by Dale Gutzman from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
playing through April 28
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