Which graduate of our public school system hasn’t read the CliffsNotes for Melville’s “Moby Dick, ” along with Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “Beowulf?” With “The Whaleship Essex, ” sailor/playwright Joe Forbrich makes his case for theatricalization of the story that inspired Melville’s epic tale of man-against-whale, with its page-after-page descriptions of waves and eschewing of substantial sub-plotting, steering it into modern-day parable by examination of man’s zealous quest for oil, with its attendant consequences.
Director Lou Contey takes on the formidable challenge of telling a story with fifteen actors running about the stage all at once, jostling and climbing and sputtering songs. If one of the greatest challenges to hit a directorial desk is the staging of “crowd scenes,” Contey’s steady hand on the rudder saves us from potential seasickness.
I question the casting of the perfectly charming Angie Shriner as cabin boy and, since there is a male actor onstage that easily reads the same age as does Ms. Shriner’s boy, am left wondering if there is any connection to this device and that character’s first scene, making reference to the sexual use of a cabin boy as a captain’s prerogative; it could not have been for want of an age-appropriate alternative that Shriner essays the boy. Is the casting of a female-pipe meant to defuse any prospective song of “panic?” Ms. Shriner’s studied attempt at maleness from the waist down drew my focus from the dialogue at regular intervals. Serving as audience conduit, Bridget Schreiber’s wife is onstage for much of the action; she is attentive and reactive without stealing focus. But the use of Joseph Wiens as both her husband and as First Mate Owen Chase causes confusion. Wiens paints these two characters with such different palettes that he was completely lost to me when he morphed from passing gentleman to sailor, and I spent time wondering why Schreiber was husband-less, and then trying to pick him out among the sailors.
Do sailors really expend so much energy with macho posturing during a lengthy sea voyage? There was a consistency to this character choice that left me wanting for roundness of portrayal. The sea chanties in particular seemed to suffer at the hands of a decision that manly men do not sing, and the atonal cacophony of the musical group endeavors swept me from the ship’s story. And when songs were sung during monologues, I could hear neither.
The design crew creates a very real voyage replete with the sight, sound and fury of Melville’s crashing waves. But the lengthy expedition to the apex of the saga, combined with the over-long drop to resolution, proves as great a theatrical challenge as is suffered by its literary predecessor, despite bringing it current as a cry against universal greed. (Aaron Hunt)
Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150, theaterwit.org, $30. Through October 11.