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A great white whale swamps the stage

Bag&Baggage presents a new twist on classic Melville novel


'Successfully creating the appearance of a spontaneous production is no mean feat, but these actors succeed,' writes Reviewer Tina Arth.In the proud tradition of generations of English majors, I always hated “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s massive 19th century whaling novel. I had no opinion at all about Orson Welles — he wasn’t in the syllabus — and I never really got the fuss about “Citizen Kane.”

Thus I walked into the Venetian Theatre for opening night of “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” expecting a well-staged, well-acted, well-directed (it is, after all, Bag & Baggage) evening of wordy pretentiousness with a few gems of real story buried in a mass of ponderous blubber. I was dead right on the first three counts, but amazed to be completely wrong about the last part.

Welles’ adaptation for the stage may not be everybody’s cup of krill, but it provided me with a couple of hours (barely enough time to get through Chapter 1 in the book) of challenging, moving, sometimes fun theater.

To understand the play, it helps to have a basic grasp of the “Moby Dick” story (from the novel, the 1956 movie or one of several subsequent film versions). An unconscionably abridged version for the uninitiated: in mid-19th century Massachusetts, the whaling ship Pequod sets sail under the leadership of Captain Ahab, who lost a previous ship and half a leg to a huge white whale named Moby Dick.

Ahab is obsessed with killing this whale. Novice seaman Ishmael joins the crew. While scouring the seas for the elusive giant, the Pequod encounters other ships, including the afflicted Rachel.

Rachel’s crew had hunted Moby Dick but is now searching for a boatload of lost men, including the captain’s young son. Ahab refuses to help, pressing on with his own quest. Eventually the white whale is sighted and chased. Moby Dick fights back, crushes several boats, and destroys the Pequod in a final gory battle between Ahab and the leviathan. Only Ishmael survives, to be rescued by the crew of the Rachel.

Director Scott Palmer is notorious for deliberately challenging gender conventions in his casting, and the 12-person cast is split evenly between women and men — with a woman (Kymberli Colbourne) in the role of Captain Ahab. “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” provides a play within a play, with Colbourne playing the overbearing leading lady of an acting troupe rehearsing “King Lear.” The star suddenly decides to switch stories to “Moby Dick,” thoroughly confusing the stage manager and the rest of the company. After some casual backstage talk, the troupe bravely launches into a rehearsal of the new show. COURTESY PHOTOS - 'Moby Dick, Rehearsed' continues through March 20 at The Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

Without appropriate costumes, sets or props, both cast and audience are allowed only imagination (augmented by ladders, sticks and flags) to create the illusion of the whaling ship, the vast Pacific and the great white whale. Watching the group transform itself from a bickering acting troupe into a cohesive unit nicely parallels the ship’s crew as its members gradually unite in support of Ahab’s insane quest.

The show’s lighter moments come during the backstage banter phase, primarily from Peter Schuyler (“Serious Actor/Starbuck”), David Heath (“Old Pro/Peleg”), and Eric St. Cyr (“Cynical Actor/Queequeg”). While Welles took most of the dialogue directly from Melville’s work, this segment allows the playwright to express a few thoughts of his own, including a sly dig at critics. A particularly astute moment comes when, in response to a comment about the need for theater, a character replies, “Nobody ever needed the theater — except us. Have you ever heard of an unemployed audience?”

Once the play-within-a-play moves into high gear, the women own the wrenching emotional content, while the men hurl themselves into the demanding physicality of creating ship and sea. Colbourne’s performance as Ahab and Father Mapple is shattering; the Leading Lady gets lost in the intensity and insane passion of her roles.

Insanity also drives two of the other women — Arianne Jacques (“Stage Manager/Elijah”) and Cassie Greer (“Young Actress/Pip”). Jacques brings a keening hysteria to her prophetic pronouncements, while Greer uses a plaintive, little-boy-lost delivery that draws the audience to the quiet, touching relationship between Ahab and Pip.

Of the women, only Jessi Walters (“Ishmael”) lacks a touch of madness; as the only survivor, she ends up in the comparatively flat role of narrator.

Early in the show, cast members complain about the absence of an orchestra, as they will be forced to sing the show’s songs a cappella. While “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” is certainly not a musical and there are few outside instrumental effects, the leads and ensemble work in the vocals are exquisite. The hymn and whaling songs are hauntingly powerful, and the whale’s final lament almost brought me to tears (of course, I’m the sort who always roots for the whale!).

Successfully creating the appearance of a spontaneous production is no mean feat. Lighting designer Molly Stowe, scenic designer Megan Wilkerson, and technical director Nate Patterson all play key roles in evoking the nonexistent ship, sea and whale.

Once again, Scott Palmer has pulled together a complex, rarely seen and compelling piece of theater that entertains his audience while expanding their understanding of the art of theater.