at the Palmer Square Arts Fair
It was a foolhardy and courageous mission: the temperature in Logan Square hovered at a muggy 89 degrees, small hyperactive children and large hyperactive dogs ran unchecked, the park was aswarm with bartering vendors, tinkle-tune ice cream wagons, passing automobile boom boxes, and mufflerless motorcycles–and Redmoon Theater intended to hold the attention of some 300 fair goers with a play about 19th-century whale chasing on the high seas.
The drawbacks to outdoor theater are numerous. “Forget your vocal projection techniques,” an actor in the Oak Park Shakespeare Festival once said. “Just yell as loud as you can.” Noise wasn’t the only thing that hampered Redmoon’s presentation of Moby Dick; there was also a stiff breeze, heralding imminent rain, that whipped away the actors’ voices and came close to scuttling the Pequod prematurely. All very unfortunate circumstances, because Blair Thomas and Jeff Dorchen’s original adaptation of Herman Melville’s man-versus-nature story deserves far closer attention than could be paid it in an alfresco setting.
Most of the story survives its surroundings: the peg-legged Captain Ahab swears revenge on the albino whale that crippled him and sets out on a monomaniacal voyage in search of his leviathan. That this action constitutes arrogance that the gods will surely punish is apparent to his crewmen. “Moby Dick is but a dumb brute of the sea,” the first mate reminds him. “To bear such hatred for a dumb thing / seems a kind of blasphemy.” Ahab replies scornfully, “Don’t talk to me of blasphemy. / I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” and proceeds to literally do just that, giving the wooden sun prop a good punch. At another point, he tears the lightning from out of the skies, forcing the storm to subside.
Dorchen and Thomas take many liberties in their retelling. The major one is to completely eliminate the novel’s narrator, Ishmael. Instead the story is told by Pip, the young boatswain, who provides a more ingenuous and earthbound interpretation of the cataclysmic events. Dorchen and Thomas have also chosen to write most of their text in verse and song, which helps bring out the mythic themes in Melville’s pantheistic fable. This is a whale of a cargo to be hauled by 14 actors, but they’re assisted by a four-piece orchestra (Mark Comiskey on saxophone, Seri Johnson on drums, Thomas on Tuba, and composer Max Callahan on accordion) and by the gargantuan puppets that have become Redmoon’s stock-in- trade. The huge heads are strapped to their owners with body braces or carried aloft like three-dimensional guidons, as is the great whale itself, depicted by a 25-foot parachute-silk wind sock carried by four cast members. The two sail-rigged masts of the Pequod are carried by Kate Goehring (see what roles a Jeff citation will get you?) and Louisa Bradshaw. Other clever properties include jointed wooden shark puppets and a lesser whale, who is caught, butchered, and eaten, constructed of barrel staves–black on the outside and red on the inside, naturally.
Greg Allen makes a fine stentorian Captain Ahab (his wooden leg suggested by a trompe l’oeil knee-high sock) and Walter Miller is likewise strong of spirit and voice as Starbuck, the first mate. Teria Gartelos does her best with the role of Pip, scurrying about nimbly in an attempt to address her audience at close range, but her voice is too small to overcome the auditory interference. The crewmen–Colm O’Reilly as Queequeg, Lydia Charaf as Tashtego, Brian Shaw as Daggoo, and Kiki Huygelen as the harpooner–also struggle bravely against the environmental obstacles, but only Doris DiFarnecio, as the clairvoyant Fedallah, succeeds in making the audience forget those obstacles. Callahan’s score adds much to the nautical mise-en-scene and underscores the action. The puppets, designed by Thomas and constructed by Shawn Turung, also serve to augment the story’s progress (with the exception of the character masks, which emerge as little more than immobile-countenanced encumbrances on the already-beleaguered actors). Director Jill Daly manages to prevent all these elements from entangling in trees and each other, while keeping the pace brisk and athletic.
Moby Dick is scheduled to play its remaining performances at North Avenue Beach. Perhaps, having learned that nature obeys no stage manager, Redmoon will have ironed out some of the rough spots by then. I hope so. I haven’t thought about Moby Dick in 26 years, but after seeing Redmoon’s exciting and innovative production, I think I’ll reread it. English class was never like this.