A whale of a show

Stanford Repertory Theatre's Moby Dick -- Rehearsed' is a thrill ride

For any fan of the great, late director and playwright Orson Welles or for those who are only familiar with his films, Stanford Repertory Theatre's production of "Moby Dick -- Rehearsed" offers a rare chance to view his theatrical genius in full.

The production is part of Stanford Rep's "Orson Welles: Substantial Shadows" summer festival, which includes free Monday-night showings of Welles' iconic films, an all-day symposium and a stage performance of "The War of the Worlds."

Set on a stage stripped down to the barest essentials with actors dressed predominantly in street clothes, the performance of Welles' two-act retelling of Herman Melville's classic tale of vengeance and downfall brings to life the suspense of the doomed whale hunt on a roiling sea.

Director Rush Rehm has put together a 90-minute show that honors Welles' original production while adding elements that mirror the crew's psychological dilemma. Look for the changing roster of female actors who represent the mastheader. Their changing positions reflect the play's action and mood. It's an element that Welles did not include in his original script, but it transforms the ship, in a sense, into the story's subconscious.

Rehm also cast the opening rehearsal scene in a modern context -- one that made the audience sheepishly laugh.

"Did you really read the book?" an actor asks regarding "Moby Dick."

"Well, no -- but it's all here," says Playwright/Ishmael, pointing to his smart phone.

The play opens on a somewhat confusing note. There's a half-rendered red sun that initially seems to be the only set prop, and when the actors mill about in street clothes reciting lines from "King Lear," there's an initial thought of, "Uh ... what have I gotten myself into?"

But that is as Welles intended. The audience is glimpsing not a polished set and play of "Moby Dick," but a rehearsal of "King Lear" that the performers soon abandon for the Melville masterpiece. "Moby Dick -- Rehearsed" then builds into an engrossing experience. Swelling like an enormous wave, the play takes the audience on a transformational, white-knuckle ride.

Bare-bones set scaffolding becomes the ship Pequod on which crew members toil; the search for the monstrous white whale becomes a journey into a man's troubled soul. The audience becomes the helpless witness to this tragedy, following the maniacal Captain Ahab and his doomed crew to the bottom of the sea.

Rod Gnapp, a veteran of Bay Area stages, is a crusty Ahab who barks out orders on his search for the giant cetacean. He lost his leg to Moby Dick on a previous journey, and he wants revenge at all costs.

His crew members are more than a little concerned about their captain's mental state, yet they are torn by loyalty to their master. Mutiny is a hanging offense, after all.

The young Ishmael, played by Louis McWilliams, is the sole survivor who narrates the tale, vacillating between active crew member and storyteller. Peter Ruocco is Starbuck, the Best Mate whose final confrontation with his captain seeks Ahab to reckon with his demons. Pip, played by Maia Kazin is the adoring but terrified cabin boy who serves as a kind of angel on Ahab's shoulder, but one the obsessed captain chooses to lock away.

It is all to no avail. Even during the most joyous times when the crew sings sea shanties and dances jigs there's still an undercurrent of unease.

The songs are among the best parts of the production. They were selected by director Rehm and music director Weston Gaylord after meticulous research. Some, such as "Haul in the Bowline," go back centuries to the reign of Henry VIII, Gaylord said.

The original score by New York composer Michael Keck (who did Stanford Rep's "Electra" festival), draws in the audience with haunting sounds of the sea; and Michael Ramsaur's play of colorful light is impressive for its representation of the sea and its subtle shifts from hope to doom.

"Moby Dick -- Rehearsed" keeps its audience riding the crest of emotional waves until its dramatic finale when the great whale finally takes Ahab down into the briny drink.

What: "Moby Dick -- Rehearsed," a play by Orson Welles performed by Stanford Repertory Theatre

Where: Pigott Theater, Memorial Hall, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University

When: Performances through Aug. 10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $25 general admission; $15 for students, unemployed persons and pensioners. A community symposium, "Transformative Stages -- Sea Change in Wells and Melville," takes place on Aug. 2 from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Cost is $90 and includes lunch.

Info: Go to repertorytheatre.stanford.edu for information on the festival and tickets, email stanfordrep@stanford.edu or call 650-725-5838. To register for the symposium, go to ontinuingstudies.stanford.edu.

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