Depth of Understanding: “Moby Dick”

Presented by American Repertory Theater
Music, Lyrics, Book, and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Based on Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Music Direction and Supervision by Or Matias
Choreography by Chanel DaSilva
Developed with and Directed by Rachel Chavkin

December 3, 2019 – January 12, 2020
Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
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Review by Shiyanbade Animashaun

(Cambridge, MA) Moby-Dick, as director Rachel Chavkin said when talking about multihyphenate writer Dave Malloy, attempts to formally “capture Melville’s eclecticism”. The novel Moby-Dick has a chapter as a play, another as a poem, and wraps the tale of an ill-fated drive for vengeance alongside descriptions of whale types, and the many ways one can prepare and eat a whale.

The musical takes this and repackages it with some difficulty in a 3-hour and 30-minute show. In what was a massive effort, there were times it felt disjointed. The elements that worked best were the expansive and immersive set design, versatile and far-reaching musicality of the band, and hands down, the cast. The thirteen cast members carried the emotions and connections they felt to the audience, even if they were not always clarified by context.

The musical consists of “Prologue” and four parts, each different in tone and narrative style.

The “Prologue” harkens to the novel’s biblical leanings. The musical opens with “The Sermon” beautifully sung by Father Mapple (Dawn L. Troupe) accompanied by a band raised above the audience in part of the set scaffolding. It ends with a commentary on Melville, the novel, and light mentions of politics, by Ishmael (Manik Choksi) curiously dressed in a white tee-shirt, cargo pants and boat shoes.

Part I is introductory, giving us precise harmonies and setting the stage for a commentary on race. The lyrics of ‘Knights & Squires’ draw notice to three white male characters, who are not played by white men. This continues in ‘A Bosom Friend’, which ends with the audience in the palm of Queequeg’s (Andrew Cristi) hand and Ishmael declaring the cannibal he once feared ‘human after all’.

Part II includes many tonal shifts, starting with a scheduled pause to gather audience volunteers, a recorded amusement ride style announcement, and the casts’ reemergence with various whale puppets and costumes that add to a vaudevillesque style and comment on waste and recycling. There is a moment of stand-up style commentary from Fedallah (Eric Berryman), who removes his costume to reveal sneakers, jeans and a colorful tee shirt. He lampoons both Melville and Malloy, the later for “trying to win an award for outstanding wokeness”. Ending on a darker tone, Starbuck (Starr Busby) takes us to intermission with the resounding and trepidation filled ‘Dusk’.

Part III’s five subsections are for to Pip (Morgan Siobhan Green), the 9 year old, black boy who has a traumatic experience. They include the cast reacting to the event, a re-creation, which was the most valuable, and a tender song of longing from Green. There is also a semi spoken word performance by Ashkon Davaran that asks if God is male or female, brown or black, green, white, etc. – then calls your attention to the ‘different’ order, perhaps for not placing ‘white’ at the top of the list. All sections include actors passing a microphone to sing or give commentary.

Part IV has Choksi and Cristi lamenting a sickness with a closeness that seems stark, given the cordial friendliness seen in Part II. In ‘Sextext’, the cast comes together again in a round-like song with repeating lyrics and cascading melodies reminiscent of the rolling ocean or whale songs.

In a gripping moment, Ahab (Tom Nelis), who played his lost limb with a white boot, harnessed pants and without once bending his ‘missing’ right knee, refuses another chance to abandon his quest. This comes from a request to help Captain Gardiner of the Rachel (Troupe again in a quadruple role) who sings with haunting grief and desperation, causing the audience to mourn with her as for an old friend, though it is a new  character. The musical closes with the moving ‘Roll On’, showcasing the vocal power of the cast again, particularly Tashtego (Matt Kizer), who sings its last note, as well as the band.

In the end, Moby-Dick seems to mine a depth of understanding of the novel. With a talented and hardworking cast of actors and musicians, technical, costuming, puppeteering and lighting work, the musical has a lot of amazing parts that are unfortunately difficult to process. It tries to be many things, and a ‘mess’ like the novel. However, it is not made accessible to the uninitiated viewer who lacks an intimate knowledge of the novels’ content and themes.

The actors shine in the moments where they have meaty dialogue and consequences to act on. At times they react with deep emotions to events we are only told about, things that passed between intermissions and songs.

Yet, in some ways, the repeated calls to notice the implied allyship of a white director are much clearer. As such, Malloy choosing to put a bust of Melville on stage instead of playing him – do as to not “take up too much space,” is undermined by how often we are reminded of said allyship. In so doing, Moby-Dick may have chased a White Whale of Wokeness to its peril. As with the novel, only time will tell.

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