Moby Dick | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at Cafe Voltaire, through August 27

Moby Dick. Icon of American literature, passion of high school English teachers, inspiration for 25-hour reading marathons on an old whaling ship in Connecticut. Those who haven't read it may feel that fact somehow indicates they're only half American, half educated, half literate. They might get a guilty thrill from watching Mark Kenward's 70-minute adaptation--it's better than Cliffs Notes and shorter than the book.

Kenward has trimmed Melville's novel down to a one-man show that could fit in your pocket, yet he keeps all the pertinent action and keeps it moving forward. His production is a highly polished form of story telling (or oral interpretation, as they called it in high school).

He conjures up a semimystical seascape down in the basement of Cafe Voltaire, using an amazing array of homemade sound effects for waves on the beach, windstorms, and whirlpools. But as an actor he comes up short. Jumping between the characters Ishmael, Elijah, Starbuck, and Captain Ahab, he holds the audience's attention and holds it well. But he doesn't develop these wildly different characters well enough to bring out the deeper drama of Melville's story. And at times they're so poorly defined it's difficult to tell which one is speaking.

That leaves a gaping hole in the production. Even those who haven't read the book know it's the story of Ahab's obsessive quest for revenge on the great white whale that tore off his leg. What makes this story worth staging is that the audience gets to see Ahab on his quest, see what kind of person he is, see his soul through his movement, the rhythm of his thought, the gleam in his eye. As a narrator Kenward clearly details Ahab's journey. But when he takes on Ahab's character, he fails to provide a compelling picture of this man nearly driven to madness by his desire to destroy a force greater than he is. It's not that Kenward didn't choose the right passages to supply this information. It's that he can't act. And to bring out the vengeance that has seized Ahab's soul requires the skills of an Olivier.

Kenward comes at this production from an academic background and seems to have little training or experience as an actor. He plays the dramatic surface of all his characters. When the old sailor Elijah warns Ishmael of Ahab's madness, Kenward exaggerates the feeling of impending doom that his warning creates rather than simply playing Elijah as a wizened old sailor who maybe drinks too much.

Melville's tale is also more than Ahab's quest for the great white whale. It pits man against nature and raises serious questions about that relationship. Each character understands the sea and whale hunting differently, and if Kenward's characters were fully developed these perspectives would add a lot more depth to this production.

As it is, the heart of Kenward's staging is a little hollow. Not because he doesn't understand his material. He knows Moby Dick better than most. He also knows how to structure a massive story for a small stage. But he doesn't breathe life into his characters. Sure, his production is entertaining, but for people seeking deeper things, the book is worth the effort.

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