Friday, March 25, 2005

TACT Revives 'Moby Dick Rehearsed'

In Arlington, Virginia, this weekend, the American Century Theatre is remounting a production of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, which was a hit for the company almost a decade ago.

I mentioned the success of this play in my review of TACT's production of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark the following season, and a blurb ended up on the TACT website:

"Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed... was a triumph of physicality and illusion. The show had to be extended several times -- yet it was a play that hardly anyone had ever heard about before the TACT production."
-- Rick Sincere, Metro Herald

I won't be able to see the new production until next weekend. In the meantime, here's my review of the original show eight years ago (note how it is combined, slyly, with a review of a community theatre production of another show with a seagoing theme).

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1997:

Two Ships Passing in the Night in Arlington
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Arlington County, like the Washington metropolitan area as a whole, has a wealth of arts and entertainment resources. Besides the nationally-renowned Signature Theatre (whose fame outclasses its home in a former warehouse in a hard-to-reach part of the county), there are numerous community theatre groups, orchestras and chamber ensembles, and art galleries.

Two recent theatrical offerings in Arlington demonstrate the depth and diversity possible even in a small, suburban community. The productions have little in common -- except they are both being staged in Arlington middle schools and both take place aboard an oceangoing vessel.

American Century Theater's staging of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed is by far the more ambitious of the two. The Arlington Players' version of Cole Porter's Anything Goes lacks ambition, but it is full of fun and energy.

Moby Dick Rehearsed makes a virtue out of necessity. The play is shaped as a rehearsal -- presumably a staged reading, though the actors do not use scripts -- on a bare stage with no costumes and only the roughest props. For the peripatetic Welles, Moby Dick Rehearsed was his final venture into original stage productions in a career that veered from radio to movies to television to the legitimate theatre. The "director" (Charles Matheny, who also plays Captain Ahab) is based upon Welles himself, with all the pomposity and unpredictability that that implies. Welles is said to have based this play's unique staging on his own experience in the 1930s, when he was forced by circumstance to present plays on shoestring budgets with no access to lighting, costumes, props, or sets.

The story of Moby Dick is familiar -- the obsessive Captain Ahab searches the ocean for his nemesis, the white whale. Dialogue for the Moby Dick section of the play -- the bulk of the performance -- is lifted almost verbatim from Herman Melville's novel. It is a classical tragedy.

The cast is almost all-male (one actress, Joy Jones, ends up playing a male role, Pip, the cabin boy) and works together as a finely-oiled machine. This is a true ensemble production. One can imagine the hours and hours of acting exercises that preceded rehearsals for Moby Dick Rehearsed, because this multi-person cast moves together in unison, sings in a capella harmony, moves set pieces in total darkness, and improvises dialogue with no perceptible artifice. Director Jack Marshall has done a marvelous job in bringing together diverse actors to create a unified whole.

The same weekend that Moby Dick Rehearsed opened at Gunston Middle School at the south end of Arlington County, Anything Goes opened in central Arlington's Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

The two plays could not present a better study in contrasts. Where Moby Dick Rehearsed is dark and brooding, Anything Goes is lighthearted and frivolous. Both plays are set on ships, but the resemblance ends there.

To be perfectly frank, Anything Goes has run its course as a viable play. Its songs are witty and melodious -- but they would be better presented in a Cole Porter revue rather than in the musical comedy form. For a generation raised on Rodgers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, the lack of integration in music and drama is a serious disappointment. As good as the songs are, they do little to advance the plot or define the characters. They are interchangeable with songs from almost any other Porter musical (Kiss Me, Kate excepted). As a matter of fact, this version of Anything Goes is not the play that premiered in 1934, but rather a revival from the early 1960s that "borrows" songs from other Porter shows -- the most prominent example being "Friendship," which originally appeared in the 1942 musical DuBarry Was a Lady.

The plot is simple: Billy Crocker (John Schlitt) stows away on the luxury liner S.S. American to be with the girl of his dreams, Hope Harcourt (Elizabeth Eck), who is traveling to London with her fiancé, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Kevin Adams), and her mother (Joyce Weiser). Also aboard are Moonface Martin (John J. DeCore), who is "Public Enemy #13", and evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Beth McAlexander Kubiak) and her "Angels." Hiding out from the ship's officers, Billy is mistaken for Public Enemy Number One, chaos ensues, people sing and dance, and in the end everyone lives happily ever after.

All of the leading roles are filled by solid actors who can sing well and dance passably. Unfortunately, the cast is quite unbalanced -- apart from the leading men, there are no men among the passengers. The chorus, as a result, is almost entirely female. No doubt this caused the choreographer multiple problems. Community theatres often complain about the lack of men available for musicals, but in this case, the problem could have been solved by adding a song from the original 1934 version of Anything Goes, "Where Are the Men?", in which the female passengers lament to the captain the absence of the opposite sex. This amusing song could have both explained and dismissed the casting imbalance.

Despite these misgivings, Anything Goes is pure family entertainment, full of jokes and slapstick. For good reason, it is a mainstay of community theatre groups across the country.

Now, for good measure (and complete information), here is the text of the news release announcing TACT's new production of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed:
Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed Returns:
American Century Theater Mounts New Production, Opens March 24

Nearly ten years ago, a young DC theater company brought to the stage a forgotten work by a great American artist…Orson Welles’ brilliant 1955 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic whaling adventure, Moby Dick. The production created a sensation, and put that theater company, the American Century Theater, on the map. Today, the American Century Theater is the Washington area’s acknowledged master of neglected 20th Century plays. Now, to celebrate its 10th season, it is combining the best of its original production with the additional experience, talent and expertise it has developed over the past decade to bring audiences a new Moby Dick Rehearsed that is more exhilarating than ever.

Moby Dick Rehearsed, Welles’ only play, is a celebration of pure theater. The show combines techniques of radio, improvisation, stagecraft and Welles’ own special brand of managed chaos to do the impossible: audiences actually believe that a monstrous whale is lurking under the theater.

"Moby Dick Rehearsed is really two shows,” said TACT artistic director Jack Marshall, who directed the original production and is relishing this second round with the material. “It is a dynamic dramatization of one of the greatest adventure stories of all time, and it is also about the essence of what makes live theater special. Just as seeing Singing in the Rain makes you want to dance, seeing Moby Dick Rehearsed makes you want to see more live theater.”

Marshall has hand-picked an ensemble that includes six of the original cast, supplemented by a collection of stand-outs who have been memorable in 25 of TACT’s 47 productions. Returning is Charles Matheny as the mad Captain Ahab, as well as David Jourdan (Stubb), Michael Sherman (Mastheader), Glenn White (Peleg), John Tweel (Queegqueg), and Tim Lynch, Ishmael in the first Moby Dick Rehearsed, who will play First Mate Starbuck in this production.

Joining the Pequod crew are Bill Aitkin, just seen in Tea and Sympathy; Joe Cronin, most recently the tragic Gus in Paradise Lost; Christian Yingling, memorable in Uncle Tom's Cabin; Jeff Consoletti of Tea and Sympathy, Derrick Lampkins, featured in Porgy, Tom Fuller, TACT’s resident musical director, and Shane Wallis, the feisty Insigna of TACT’s Mister Roberts, among other roles.

Producer Rhonda Hill has enlisted original Moby Dick Rehearsed set designer Michael DeBlois along with lighting designer Marianne Meadows, sound designer Dan Murphy, Costumer Rip Claasen and props designer Eleanor Gomberg to repeat the magic.

“It really is magic,” said Marshall. “Welles was a magician and he insisted that live theater be full of wonder, surprises and the unexpected. Moby Dick Rehearsed is his very best trick. Bring your family, bring your kids, and most of all, bring your imagination.”

Moby Dick Rehearsed runs March 24-April 30, 2005. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM and 2:30 PM matinees on April 3, 10, 16, 17, 23, 30. Performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets are $18-$26. As always, accompanied by a paying adult, a child under 18 can see the show for free. For information/tickets/group sales call 703-553-8782 or visit

The American Century Theater is a 501 (c) (3) professional nonprofit theater company dedicated to producing, great, important and neglected 20th Century American playwrights. TACT is funded in part by the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, numerous foundations and many generous donors.

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