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Thursday, 28 August 2008

Dancing up a storm in Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Based on the novel by Herman Melville, adapted and directed by Morris Panych
Choreography and movement by Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling
Featuring David Ferry, Shaun Smyth, W. Joseph Matheson and Marcus Nance

The Story: A young sailor Ishmael and his new friend Queequeg find work aboard the whaling ship Pequod. As they get under sail their captain is nowhere to be seen; however once they are at sea Captain Ahab appears and reveals the ship’s mission – to find and kill the great white whale, Moby Dick, whom Ahab believes to have malevolently and deliberately injured him in their previous confrontation. Ahab’s obsession troubles Ishmael and the first mate, Starbuck, as it quickly becomes obvious that not even the safety of his crew will stand in the way of Ahab’s quest.

If you will pardon the obvious pun, transforming the 135-chapter novel of Moby Dick into 100 minutes of theatre was the leviathan of undertakings, not to mention doing so in movement and dance rather than in text and straight acting. However, Canadian playwright Morris Panych was undoubtedly the right man for the job. Not as abstract as a ballet by any means, Panych has used the music of Claude Debussy as inspiration, in particular La Mer, and he and his choreographer and movement coach (Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling), have developed a clearly illustrated abridgement of the tale of a man’s obsession and our relationship to the natural world.

The little dialogue in the production comes from pre-recorded snippets from the book, Ishmael’s thoughts that echo and reverberate like the action of waves on words. Starting with a statement from the novel’s last chapter, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”, the movement also starts with the end of the story: the actors slowly file on stage and one by one become men who have drowned, suspended in the sea. The echoing words slowly become clearer towards the end of the play, as if Ishmael’s memory of events are catching up with him, and the production ends with the first words of the novel, the only words actually spoken on stage, “Call me Ishmael.”

But how does one convey a whaling schooner, storms, and a great white whale on a tiny stage? In this case, very, very cleverly. I almost hate to give it away, the effects are so cunning – three ladders, and a number of actors with loose shirts transform into a three-masted tall ship. Actors heaving a canvas sail on the floor and a siren with a model ship become a very effectively-portrayed storm-tossed vessel. As for the unseen whale, it envelops the audience in sound that is felt as much as it is heard, courtesy of a great design from Wade Staples.

Actor David Ferry is as charismatic as his haunted character, Captain Ahab, and the way that he and Shaun Smythe’s Ishmael observe each other forms one of the most interesting relationships of this production. Another interesting contrast is formed between Starbuck (W. Joseph Matheson) and the enigmatic Fedallah (Shawn Wright) as they suspiciously regard one another. If I have one quibble with this production it is that the tolerant and respectful character of Queequeg (Marcus Nance) is sketched a little too lightly when he should be a direct contrast to the more narrow-minded members of the crew, although Mr. Nance and Mr. Smythe make it very clear that Queequeg and Ishmael greatly value their friendship.

Some of the most memorable characters in this play are not actually in the book, these being the sirens as performed by Kelly Grainger, Alison Jantzie and Lynda Sing. In grey-green, flowing garments designed by Dana Osborne they look and move exactly like one would imagine the mythical sirens should. They became turbulent oceans, seagulls, small whales, and of course temptresses. More to the point, they became the embodiment of the sea itself, as Ishmael describes in the novel: “These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Audaciously conceived and impressively drawn, this commissioned production of Moby Dick continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 18.

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