Persephone Productions presents Moby Dick
A powerful adaptation of the Herman Melville classic
By Byron Toben
Call me… Byron.
Some years ago — never mind how many precisely — I took up writing theatre reviews as a hobby. Although land-based, I felt an affinity with the sea based he who calls himself… um… Ishmael. We seek, search, observe and sometimes find enlightenment or at least entertainment and have a whale of a time in so doing. All of which, leads into…
Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s literary great white whale of 1851, which really has legs, or I guess, flippers. One hundred and sixty six years later, it has gone through many adaptations, great and small.
In film, the best was John Huston’s 1956 movie with script by Ray Bradbury, who hewed closely to Melville’s words. Didn’t hurt to have Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab and Orson Welles in a cameo as the bible-thumping preacher citing Jonah.
In film, the best (adaptation) was John Huston’s 1956 movie with script by Ray Bradbury, who hewed closely to Melville’s words.
Now playing here on stage is Montreal theatre critic Jim Burke’s version which garnered various awards when it premiered in 2000 in Liverpool, UK… on a floating theatre ship, which really must have added some salty verisimilitude.
Under the imaginative direction of director Alex Goldrich, the five athletic actors do gyre and gimble in the wabe as they jump and leap as if on a moving ship, all the while spouting Melvillian allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and the bible. The jabberwocky they must beware is in the form of an albino sperm whale, which, while lacking claws that catch, does have mammoth jaws that bite.
And like the crocodile in Peter Pan who had munched the leg off Captain Hook, Moby Dick threatens to take the rest of the revengeful Captain Ahab, which he does, along with demolishing the rest of the crew. Only he who is called Ishmael doth survive this tale to tell.
Here, Ishmael is convincingly played by Anne-Marie Saheb, a Dawson theatre grad, whose performance anchors the whole. She also doubles as first mate Starbuck, for whom the coffee franchise is named. Alex Petrachuk, a female Concordia drama grad, plays cabin boy Pip and a host of other characters in the ensemble.
… Ishmael is convincingly played by Anne-Marie Saheb, a Dawson theatre grad, whose performance anchors the whole.
On the male side, Martin Law, a co-founder of Chocolate Moose, handles the key role of Captain Ahab, complete with artificial peg leg, the removal of which oft delays curtain calls. Nils Svensson-Carell, another Dawson theatre grad from Sweden, handles crew member Flask and others, including the captain of another passing ship.
Chris Hicks, memorable for his local roles in Oroonoko and Bard Fiction also portrays other ensemble characters in addition to the key role of Queequeg, the tattooed Pacific island prince.
One of the cleverest scenes is when the crew massages the vibration-inducing oily white sperm whale fluid called spermaceti. For years, it was in great demand as a mechanical lubricant. Its acquisition is now forbidden by law under the endangered species act, but rumours persist that it is still used for satellites and spacecraft by NASA due to its unparalleled cold temperature resistance.
This production treats serious subjects like human’s place in the universe with zest, an appropriate humour and occasional musical shanties. Click to hear a shanty example from the Huston film.
Moby Dick adapted by Jim Burke continues until February 21
at the Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire, 4750 Henri-Julien
Tickets: 514 873-4031 ext. 313 or persephoneproductions.org
Images: Christopher Moore
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.