Topanga Canyon becomes the latest canvas for the bravura of Orson Welles and his rash attempt to bring the epic of the White Whale to life in a theatrical setting.
By John Lavitt
Topanga, CA (The Hollywood Times) 06/17/19 – At the Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, the talented company takes on Orson Welles’ theatrical adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby Dick. Rather than tackling the white whale head on, Welles chose to set his story during a rehearsal of a Shakespearean acting troupe in between performances of King Lear. Although the troupe does not necessarily believe that the novel will work as a play, they follow the lead of their Director (Franc Ross) and dive right into a full-fledged performance. Under the direction of Ellen Geer and choreographed by Dane Oliver, the resulting production of Moby Dick Rehearsed is both passionate and flawed, echoing the complex obsessions of Captain Ahab (Gerald C. Rivers) himself.
The interactive ingeniousness of how Orson Welles chose to adapt a novel as epic and unwieldy as Moby Dick cannot be denied. Famous for his masterpiece Citizen Kane and infamous for creating a nationwide panic with his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles played Father Mapple in the 1956 film adaptation of Moby Dick that starred the incomparable Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Fascinated by the story, he wondered how could a director possibly represent such an epic tale theatrically without seeming ridiculous? By setting this account amid a Shakespearean troupe in a theater, the impossibility of the telling is shed. Indeed, as the transition into Melville’s world begins, the Director asks the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your mind.”
With this request, the audience is challenged to imagine so much more than what is presented. From the whaling community in Nantucket and the ribaldry of an alehouse to the vast sails of the Pequod blowing on the high seas and the breaching of waters by the massive white whale, imagination is key. By being asked politely, the audience happily took part, even buying into the ongoing narration by Ishmael (Dane Oliver). Although Dane Oliver is a fine actor and his work as a choreographer is excellent, he does not quite fit the part of Melville’s narrator. Lacking the character’s deep spiritual malaise, he’s a little too happy-go-lucky to be playing Ishmael, coming across less like a 19th century whaler and more like the boyfriend of Cruise Director Julie on The Love Boat. Thankfully, his mildness is balanced out by Michael McFall’s massive presence as Queequeg, Melville’s exotic harpooner.
The weakest parts of the production admittedly take place in the whaling community of Nantucket. During this transitional period between Shakespearean troupe and whaling ship, there are a few strange juxtapositions that hamper the full flight of imagination. As Father Mapple, a former whaler who has become a preacher in the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Franc Ross takes on a secondary role. Although in need of cutting, his commanding sermon about Jonah and the Whale reflects the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy-Award winning performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. In a truly bizarre tonal jump, this powerful moment shifts into a not-so-spooky scene of a weird old man spouting prophecy to Ishmael and Queequeg. It literally feels like a goofy performance by Marty Feldman dropped out of a Mel Brooks comedy. Back to back with the fiery sermon, the juxtaposition is a bit jarring.
Once the ship begins to sail, however, a sound footing is achieved again with the introduction of Captain Ahab. As an African-America actor chosen to play Captain Ahab, Gerald C. Rivers is a revelation. By going against the grain of tradition, Ahab’s monomaniacal focus on the white whale takes on a different character. Veering from the portrayal of Ahab in Melville’s novel, the characterization by Rivers pulls back from the constant rage and roar of the mad captain. A deep awareness of his inability to stop the runaway train of his obsession with the white whale informs his performance. Ultimately, Ahab realizes that his sanity now resides in his memories. Indeed, he longs for the gentle hours of a buried past. There is no escape for the Captain, however, from the pinpoint obsession of the present moment. Indeed, the sunset that once soothed a tired soul now only brings forth darkness, spurring him towards vengeance.
On the boat, Captain Ahab dominates, and first mate Starbuck’s protestations fall on deaf ears. As Starbuck, company member Colin Simon’s performance is almost too restrained, getting lost in the noise of the narrative. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the transition from Shakespearean troop to surly whale hunters is how quickly the two female actors in the play transform into male crew members. As opposed to standing out as women playing men, they disappear into their roles, providing depth to the company as a whole. If the final product does not necessarily add up to all of its parts, the fault lies not with the acting company, but with the wild, somewhat indulgent vision of the original text by Orson Welles. In the end, when you combine the undeniable passion of Ellen Geer’s direction with the sweeping choreography of Dane Oliver, the originality and value of the production cannot be denied.
At the enchanting outdoor stage in Topanga, performances of the play will continue through September 29th as part of the company’s 2019 summer repertory season. If you haven’t been to Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, it is one of the real gems of the Los Angeles cultural landscape that should not be missed. In terms of future performances of Moby Dick-Rehearsed, given the weight of the storyline, nighttime shows make more sense than matinees. The darkness helps suspend the imagination, giving a more substantial weight to Captain Ahab and his insurmountable quest for the white whale.