nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
June 2, 2005
Moby Dick in one hour? Well, for the purposes of theatre and, especially, a one-man show, one hour is just about right. There’s just no way around the fact that Herman Melville’s timeless work of courage, loyalty and obsession is best-served as a novel, but not only do actor/playwright Christopher Moore and director Alex Roe recognize this, they embrace it. Roe is a gifted, resourceful director with a reputation for being able to successfully pull off theatre works (especially period plays) that others with less imagination would find unproducible. The equally talented Moore has culled the more “act-able” portions of Melville’s dense and sometimes daunting text and created a unique, theatrical sidebar which actually makes the audience want more—enough, possibly, even to forsake their daily dose of reality TV and actually READ the free copies of Moby Dick that are provided after the show.
With ocean waves pounding in the background throughout, Moore steps on to a stage erected to suggest dockyard planks and greets us with the inevitable “Call me Ishmael.” Bearded and dressed all in black right down to his pea coat, Moore very much looks—and sounds—the part of the good-natured young itinerant who arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the late 1800s with dreams of working on a sailing ship and seeing the world. Soon we meet another classic character, Queequeg, with whom Ishmael must spend the night, since all the other rooms in the inn are taken.
ISHMAEL: “You gettee in,” he [Queequeg] added, motioning me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings, he was on the whole a clean, comely-looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
They quickly become inseparable friends, and loyal Queequeg joins Ishmael for the fateful voyage on the Pequod, commanded by the mysterious, maniacally embittered Captain Ahab and his long-suffering first mate Starbuck. The dialogue and text are entirely Melville’s, lifted right out of the novel.
But this is not simply Cliff Notes Moby Dick performed live. Much of Melville’s dry humor, which might be lost on the page in a first reading, becomes much more evident when voiced by someone who knows what he’s doing. Moore plays all the characters, slipping seamlessly out of one skin into the next. Gracefully managing to make the poetic 19th century language accessible and natural—even conversational—Moore makes the most of his hour with hardly a lull, and the time flies by. When he finally launches into the more narrative passages of the story—the details of the voyage and the mad Ahab’s all-consuming quest to hunt and kill Moby-Dick, the sperm whale that chomped off his leg—the beauty of Melville’s colorful language and Moore’s artful storytelling skills made me forget that I was in a theater. Although there was only a single man on the stage, I saw the many.
Interestingly, though, even with all these wonderfully florid visions searing across my brain, it was when the play became more expository, rather than character-inhabited, that I began to lose focus and my mind started to wander. But as if somehow he knew what I was thinking just at that moment, Moore was suddenly making his final exit off the dock. And suddenly I found myself feeling a little cheated. I would have liked more details of the character of the whale Moby-Dick to be included in the night, but I suspect its teasing absence was part of Moore and Roe’s insidious plot to induce people to read. But I got the free book (which was very cool), and so I shall.