Photo Courtesy of Michael DavisPulp
Smooth sailing: Minimal set design, dynamic performances bring historical novel to life
The Captain’s gaze is locked. The only thing standing between him and his target is the roaring sea.
“Oh, Captain, my Captain,” cries Ishmael as Ahab cast his vengeful harpoon into the sea.
In this moment, it’s hard to distinguish where the power lies: in Captain Ahab’s merciless quest for redemption or in the great white whale that handicapped him in a past voyage. Ishmael’s final narration reveals to the audience that the rules of the sea are unique. But the ending we want isn’t necessarily the one we get.
Syracuse Stage is kicking off its 40th-anniversary season with a production of “Moby Dick,” now playing through Nov. 4. With a supremely skilled cast of professionals who weave Herman Melville’s famous narrative into a dramatic format, this 161-year-old story is given new life and a fresh perspective.
“Moby Dick” tells the story of a young sailor, Ishmael, the narrator who joins the ranks of the Pequod whaling ship in search of a new experience after having been a merchant marine. Once aboard, he meets a colorful crew of distinct personalities. Gossip begins to spread about the ship’s captain, Ahab, who seems to be missing from action.
After finally emerging, the crew learns about the real objective for this voyage: to take down the sperm whale that took Ahab’s leg. The ship’s first mate, Starbuck, tries to bring Ahab to his senses and call off his pursuit for revenge. He argues that there is no benefit to seeking out a creature with such strength, but Ahab has a score to settle. When he comes face to face with the colossal whale, a fierce battle for glory erupts and the fate of the entire crew is compromised.
Julian Rad, the producer, adapts the staged version of this historical novel wonderfully. A challenge that he undoubtedly faced was turning one of the most recognizable, closely read and descriptively written works into a drama that flows and has well-defined emotional dynamics. Any struggles in this regard do not show. The heart of Melville’s original work shines in the cast’s camaraderie, Ahab’s prophetic soliloquies and the noble turmoil faced on the ship’s deck.
A surprise addition to the masterpiece is the charming sea chanteys sung by the crew, including “A Pirate’s Life for Me.” The tune serves as clever transitions between scenes on the minimalist set and keeps up the audience’s attention during action that would otherwise drag. In a notable chantey, the crew passes around a pitcher of sailor’s alcohol in spirited fellowship after Ahab introduces his master plans for taking down Moby Dick. Though it transitions into a banal scene of exploration, the chantey holds the audience on the edge of its seats to see what happens next.
Director Peter Amster’s vision for “Moby Dick” is simple on its exterior, but intricate when explored subjectively. The staging of this play doesn’t exceed complication beyond fighting scenes between crew members. When unpacked, the direction is indicative of how life aboard the Pequod isn’t convoluted. Life at sea is more elementary in terms of personal dynamic. Ahab wishes to seek out and kill Moby Dick, Starbuck tries to show reason and Ahab detests Starbuck’s attempts.
The performances in “Moby Dick,” as equally deserving of praise as Amster, illuminate the deck of the Pequod, even in the darkest and stormiest of scenes. The men aboard act as a unit when need be and shine in the spotlight. When all the elements align, the saltiness of the air is palpable.
Kurt Ehrmann’s Captain Ahab sticks out more than the rest. Having to play the historically significant and revered figure in American literature with an arm sling, caused by an unrelated injury, Ehrmann triumphs despite his handicaps. To say he overcomes a grand obstacle would be to undermine his performance; one cannot tell he was injured after his first appearance.
Instead, his seemingly natural command of the stage takes precedence, a metaphorical muscle he is able to flex in Ahab’s long-winded yet powerful speeches to the crew. The height of Ehrmann’s dramatic run comes in his climactic declaration to Moby Dick as he readies his harpoon to finish the job. His maniacal expressions and poignant cries solidify his mastery over his craft.
Almost matching Ehrmann’s expertise is Erik Hellman’s turn as Ishmael. As the story’s narrator, Hellman effectively speaks with the naivete typical of a lesser-experienced young man, but with the gusto of a shipmate who has matched eyes with the great white whale.
David Studwell’s Starbuck also inches to the front of the pack, embodying the frustration of a second-in-command. The struggles seen in the relationship between Starbuck and Ahab, most evident in a tense scene concerning the ship’s purpose, convey deep personal history.
History makes its mark with the help of visionary direction and impeccably able stars. The play’s sails are up for a successful journey.
Contact Noah: firstname.lastname@example.org
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