From the page to the stage: 'Moby Dick' captivates

Moby Dick Who Syracuse Stage  Where 820 E. Genesee St. Syracuse When Through Nov. 4 Tickets $30-49 Review by Greg Cwik

To adapt Moby Dick for another medium is to embark on an inherently impossible excursion.

The adventure lies not within the whalers’ tales of the raging sea and prowling sea beasts and the dark, bottomless abyss of a grave they constantly glide across with such insolence toward death; it all stems from Melville’s poetically overwrought prose. The beauty of Herman Melville’s story is the innumerable ways in which it can be read and deciphered, dissected and discussed. Like ogres and onions, Moby Dick has layers. Melville spins hypnotic, kaleidoscopic sentences that stretch for seven, eight, nine lines, 200 words.

Necessarily abbreviated (but not diluted) to a 72-page script by Julian Rad and clocking in around two-and-a-half hours, Syracuse Stage’s rendition of Melville’s epic purges the narration of the vast majority of whaler shenanigans: the acute and meticulous depiction of cutting the blubber from the whale carcass (it’s like peeling an orange, Melville explains), and all of the 100-pages of cetology, so reviled by English students. Rad’s script instead focuses its gaze on the human afflictions, the corrosive nature of revenge, the darkness that dwells in the heart of man and the Sisyphean struggle to do what’s right in defiance of loyalty.

Ishmael, the narrator, walks across the sparsely-decorated stage, the low thrum of strings brooding from somewhere behind the audience. Light seeps from above like so many ghosts and apparitions, the remnants of those lives taken by the sea. A surreal, darkly dreamy aura permeates the theater; the atmosphere doesn’t stop at the stage, but rather spreads throughout the entire room.

From the first utterance of “Call me Ishmael,” the play insinuates a defiance toward Melville. “Loomings,” the first chapter of the novel, is perhaps the most beautifully morose of opening passages in American literature.

Ishmael tells us that he’s considering suicide but instead decides to go whaling, a profession not known for its high survival rate. The more glum elements have been removed for the stage adaptation. In fact, almost all of the biblical allusions have been expunged. The book is saturated in religious homage—every character, every page, every action is laced with references to the Old Testament, with Jonah getting extra attention for obvious reasons. 

Here, however, Ishmael (Erik Hellman) is kinetic and lively, his youth and innocence defining qualities in his performance. Melville’s Ishmael is neither kinetic nor lively: he narrates pensively, with a ubiquitous presence that transcends characterization. He knows everything, whether he’s present or not, and his narration, not his actions, define him. On stage, Ishmael is like a whaling rookie—funny and likeable. This alteration isn’t an inherently bad thing. How would one possibly portray an omnipresent narrator on stage? It’s a necessary change, though Melville die-hards—and yes, they exist—may find this irksome.

Some may also be surprised to find that there’s a healthy amount of singing in the play, but this is actually very faithful to the novel. Melville includes many songs in the text, though most of them are fairly silly; the songs here are more substantial and less incidental. The cast of nine (some of whom play multiple roles, Peter Sellers style) sing 18 sea shanties, all of which work exceptionally well: some unnerve, some invoke laughter, some chill like ice on the nape of your neck; the collective hums and chants of the Pequod’s crew collate with the moody music leaching from the speakers, enveloping the whole production, lending an air of disquieting vicissitude.

The first half of the play, like the novel, relies more on humor and character sketching than drama. It feels… light? Insubstantial? Entertaining, yet lacking the philosophical depth that skulks between the lines of Melville’s prose.

But, director Peter Amster and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase have a plan: By keeping things fairly light for the first half, they’ve caressed us into a certain comfort, setting up the second half’s hour-long descent into Technicolor Hell. Lights convulse and spasm, throbbing seizures of red and green evoking the fires of the underworld and the magnanimity of the sea and the unfathomable things lurking below; lightning crashes and the vengeful wind howls; the crew dangles from swaying ladders (an unbelievably versatile prop that offers a tangible visual but leaves more than enough to the mind’s eye—it’s maybe the most brilliant technical achievement of the show).

As the crew’s morale descends, the play’s tar-pit hold strengthens, a beguiling fist squeezing the audience’s heart. The gorgeously grim lighting, noir-ish and hyperbolic, casts shadows the size of gods, reflecting the blasphemous nature of slaughtering the pious whales, creatures Melville regarded with a particular reverence.

But the play belongs to Kurt Ehrmann, whose manic portrayal of Captain Ahab enthralls, frightens and captivates in turn. The barks and commands that escape his throat lacerate like barbs rusty from penetrating so much flesh and blood. He stomps around on stage with his peg leg dragging behind, a megalomaniac enraged, refusing to succumb or concede or compromise.

He’s still human, though: He cries, mourns the loss of his family, his 40 years of enslavement to the sea a bullet in his being he cannot dislodge. Hate percolates where his soul should be. Ehrmann (whose arm was in a sling due to a recent injury, though this in no way inhibited or handicapped his performance) doesn’t stutter or miss a beat, spewing Melville’s Shakespearian dialogue flawlessly.

Ahab is Kant’s notion of sublimity personified, and Ehrmann harbors all sorts of ferocity and mania, like lightning crashing on mountains. He captures the terror of Ahab’s God complex; but, more importantly, he captures the tragedy of Ahab’s humanity, him naught but a transient speck sailing across an endless spill of ethereal waves under omnipotent skies; for “what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God?”