Whether you're on the vast endless seas or stuck in your own living room day after day, the sameness of routine juxtaposed with the creeping sense of danger can do a number on your mind. Two current online offerings from Chicago theaters—Theatre in the Dark's live radio-play adaptation of Moby-Dick and Strawdog's anthology of short (mostly) solo video pieces, How Do We Navigate Space?—address that paradox.
It's almost ludicrous to try to adapt Herman Melville's dense multivalent 1851 novel, but obviously that hasn't stopped people from trying. Or me from enjoying those efforts: I still remember fondly, 30 years on, the Redmoon production, conceived by Blair Thomas and featuring a script by Theater Oobleck founder Jeffrey Dorchen, that was staged with giant puppet heads on North Avenue Beach and in a vacant lot in Wicker Park. (It later got a reworked production with Redmoon at Pegasus.) I also found several touching moments in Bob Fisher and Sara Gorsky's 2012 All Girl Moby Dick for the Mammals.
Theatre in the Dark's 90-minute version, adapted and directed by Corey Bradberry, moves with the kind of relentless focus that Captain Ahab himself brings to his monomaniacal obsession with vengeance against the white whale that took his leg and his last vestige of reason. Only three actors—Elizabeth McCoy, Mack Gordon, and Robinson J. Cyprian—provide all the voices and narration for this production, which comes live via audio-only Zoom to audiences from the artists in Chicago, Vancouver, and New Orleans.
The hyphen in the title isn't the only thing excised from Bradberry's script. The biggest loss from this aural adaptation is the sense of the multicultural nature of Ahab's crew. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo (Polynesian, Native American, and African, respectively) figure only in passing, denying us the opportunity to see how the men on the Pequod bond across their differences in personal and cultural history in their attempts to survive Ahab's growing madness. But we do get a sense of how time on board feels both becalmed by the unchanging days on the ocean and ripped open by the exhilaration and danger of chasing the whale, sometimes just by the narrator noting that it is now "Year Two."
On the other hand, a scene between Ahab and Pip, the Black cabin boy, allows us a rare glimpse into Ahab's vulnerability and desire for connection—but only on his terms. "Thou touchest my inmost center, boy, I feel thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heartstrings. Let us rivet these two hands together, the black one with the white." Of course, being touched by Pip's innocence doesn't stop Ahab from sending Pip into harm's way and eventual death, which proves that even in their attempts to reach others, solipsistic white men bent on justifying themselves will always fuck things up.
What works well in this version is the sense of literal darkness (as with all Theatre in the Dark presentations, live or digital, it's best to experience Moby Dick with the lights off and all distracting screens put away, perhaps with a mug of grog from the recipe on the theater's website). Nick Montopoli's original music and Gordon and Bradberry's soundscape is, like Bradberry's text, spare but not stinting with the period vernacular. (If you got caught up in the sea shanty craze on TikTok a while back, this might be your show!) The sound of Ahab's prosthetic leg, carved from a whale bone, tap-tap-tapping above the men in their cabins at night, feels chilling, as if he's walking over their graves.
Above all, what Bradberry's approach does is allow the starkness of the contrasts between death-seeking Ahab (Cyprian's roars and whispers in the role are equally chilling) and those who wish to hold onto life to come through clearly. Gordon's Starbuck, in the scene where he contemplates killing his captain, feels like Hamlet wrestling with whether he should take out Claudius. The irony of McCoy's Ishmael being saved by the Rachel—the vessel whose captain lost his own son and who was denied help in searching for the missing boy earlier by Ahab—suggests that if there is grace in this grim world, it comes from extending a hand, even in our grief and loss, and saving another adrift soul.
How Do We Navigate Space?
Strawdog's latest digital show, written by Karissa Murrell Myers and directed by Denise Yvette Cerna, focuses on stories from the shutdown, culled from surveys of Chicago residents sent out in late November 2020 about their experiences over the past year.
Through a series of videos combining monologues, movement, and music, we get reflections on themes and variations of living through this past year—hibernation, self-care, wishful thinking, regrets, anxiety, and anger among them. Six artists are credited with devising the final pieces (Yuchi Chiu, Terri Lynne Hudson, Gloria Imseih Petrelli, Josie Koznarek, Erik Strebig, Mah Nu) and five of them perform. (Nu doesn't appear on camera, but created much of the underscoring in the show.)
The scenes are set inside and outside, with the exteriors mostly reflecting the arctic conditions of this past February. The production team of Kamille Dawkins (director of photography), Kyle Hamman (video editing), and Heath Hays (sound design) adroitly capture the mundane and the fantastical/nightmarish impressions left by a year of quarantine, linking the spoken segments together with movement interludes choreographed by Becca Levy and saturated in rich primary colors. There are also archival segments of events from this past year, particularly last summer's protests.
The first line of dialogue we hear is "As the weather got colder, and the days became darker, my body turned inwards, rolled up like a scroll. A protective shell made of skin and bones and mask."
In essence, what Strawdog is doing is unrolling the scroll and removing the mask to show how the past year has exposed nerve ends and uncomfortable truths about a year marked not just by an incomprehensibly deadly disease, but also by uprisings against the chronic societal failings represented by institutional racism and white supremacy.
Hudson delivers a piece meditating on choosing not to attend the Black Lives Matter protests because of the pandemic, and the guilt (some exacerbated by social media posts) about that decision. "I did what I thought was best at the time. I did my fucking best. Didn't I?" she says, as she washes her face in a quiet act of what could be expiation. In another piece, Hudson also delivers a charming explanation of the comforts of wearing lipstick. Even under a mask. Even if no one else sees it.
A segment called "Devour" shows the ensemble connecting with others via Zoom as a sensual journey. By contrast, the COVID-enhanced nightmare of what is endured by those who help provide the food we literally devour comes through in a monologue delivered by Strebig. Embodying a restaurant employee forced to take a second job in a grocery store, the character relishes small acts of resistance and retaliation—wearing a nametag that isn't his real name, quietly crushing an impossible customer's bag of potato chips. Juxtaposed with these disheartening anecdotes of people behaving badly are shots of flyers and collection bins for mutual aid groups gathering groceries for those in need.
The theme of navigating space is most literal in a funny but poignant wordless segment, "Six Feet Apart," in which Strebig, Chiu, and Petrelli try to walk down the sidewalk on a wintry night without running into each other. It becomes at points an absurdist dance of jumps and flailing arms to indicate the desire to create space—the public semaphore we've probably all adopted at some time this past year. There's another segment, set to a peppy jazz score, of the ensemble members trying to open doors and turn on faucets without using their hands, followed by shots of repetitive furious handwashing.
Chiu, a gifted cellist, also accompanies himself in a segment called "Better Person," in which he talks about how being in isolation has made his character, well, a better person. But also, he notes, being indoors means "I don't have to be one of the good Asians, smiling at you, just so you don't decide to hurt me or my family."
There are humorous interludes as well, including one featuring the pampered life of pandemic pets and a monologue delivered by Koznarek about the crafts uncrafted and the books unread in shutdown, despite best intentions. "Dickens is trash," she defiantly proclaims.
The final shot is simply a hand reaching out to another, followed by a title card reading "Help each other." Ahab's sin wasn't so much his desire for vengeance. It was letting that anger and self-pity shut him out from the people around him. Strawdog's show doesn't give us easy answers—figuring out the right way to help others and bring justice as well as succor is never as easy as a hashtag. But it does give us some pointers for compassion. v