Mini-review – Moby Dick – simple8 at Arcola Theater

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Moby Dick, of all novels, not only doesn’t seem suited to the stage, it seems especially ill-suited to the low-budget, fringe theater stage. So I could help but feel myself attracted to the ballsiness that led simple8 to bring their original adaptation of Moby Dick to the Arcola Theater. I mean, if you’re going to dream, dream big, right? I’m bringing my imagination, fellahs (and as it turns out it was all men!), you take me whaling … while I’m sitting in my seat … in a crappy little, funny built theater in the middle of grimy old London town. You can do it, right?

I’m pleased to report that … wow … with three stepladders, a plank, and a mattress, simple8 did quite effectively manage to take me out on the Pequod. And not only did they do that, but with even less, they took me in a tiny boat on the open seas and harpooned a whale. And dragged it back in. I was watching them, sitting on their little stumps of wood, the five or six men that made the crew, pretending to row, pretending to throw an imaginary sharp thing at an imaginary leviathan, completely conscious of the fact that I had been bamboozled into believing into the magic of the theater … and then I shook off my standoffish critic’s glasses and stepped back into the boat. We had work to do, first getting back to the Pequod, then taking care of the whale.

If you know more than three things about Moby Dick, you’ll be aware that its structure alternates narrative with expository chapters, which would certainly pose challenges to any adaptation that tried to get too literal. This production happily embraced the opportunity to use some of these “explaining” chapters to help make the story come more to life (in our heads), for, even though Moby Dick (the narrative chapters) might be about madness, obsession, and the battle of man against nature, it’s also a book that vibrantly brings to life an entirely vanished culture. I enjoyed our lectures about the types of whales, the details of butchering, and the uses of whale oil; they gave flavor and rhythm to the evening.

They also helped lessen some of the stresses of the weight of Captain Ahab on the play. Having a madman call the shots … well, it all could have been too much of a smothering star turn, and as it was, I found myself a bit turned off by the tics and twitches of the actor (though Queequeg’s affectations grated far more). But instead, it was nicely turned into a show more about the dynamics of the men interacting with each other, with Ishmael and Queequeg’s friendship, and with Starbuck’s attempts to manage the unmentionable and unconfrontable without making it all there was to the play.

I had a few other small quibbles about this show – a few things that happen toward the very end were not clear to me until a character said what had happened – but as I (ahem) actually didn’t know the ending of the book, I won’t spoil it here. Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable production that exemplified the kind of theater I enjoy – the kind that relies on me to build empires in my head, the kind that trusts its audience to make that leap. There’s certainly wonder in seeing a play where they have all of the money to do all of the things, but I’ve always felt that you don’t need to show a helicopter to make one be there on stage, and I’ve always preferred the “less is more”/empty space aesthetic that simple8 embraces. My only regret? That I hadn’t come earlier to see their Cagliari.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, April 13, 2013. I liked it enough to buy a script. By the way, the new bathrooms in the Arcola are really confusing. I wasn’t entirely sure where the actual toliet was or what ou were supposed to do with the sink.)

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