Welles and Melville masterpiece ‘Moby Dick’ revived: Thar she blows!
Colin Simon and Gerald C. Rivers / Ian Flanders

TOPANGA, Calif.—The second act of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s (WGTB) must-see Moby Dick—Rehearsed has some of the most exciting action scenes I’ve ever seen performed on the live stage. The thrilling sea chase, when the whalers harpoon and pursue the Great White Whale, could be called the “Topanga Sleigh Ride.”

Orson Welles is best known for his work behind and in front of the movie camera, but before he went Hollywood with the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane the “boy wonder” was famous for his stage work. From Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to Broadway, during the 1930s the prodigious prodigy mounted memorable plays, notably the so-called Voodoo Macbeth at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, The Cradle Will Rock (which a superb 1999 Tim Robbins film reminds us was literally shut down at the point of a bayonet), and a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar that cleverly invoked fascism.

In 1955, banished by Tinseltown’s studios for the heinous crime of excessive creativity, Welles wandered from L.A. and New York to London’s Duke of York Theatre, where he directed and co-starred in Moby Dick—Rehearsed. Welles adapted text directly taken from Herman Melville’s 1851 classic for his play-within-a-play. The two-acter’s conceit is that a director or stage manager has cast members gathered at a theatre in order to perform King Lear rehearse a version of Melville’s novel about the Great White Whale.

After WGTB’s June 8 premiere of Rehearsed I pondered why Welles framed his production in this way, and Willow Geer, who plays Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in repertory at the Theatricum this summer, offered this insight: Welles may have used this plot device to overcome producers’ expected reticence at backing an adaptation of Melville’s ponderous tome. By only adapting portions of the 600+-page novel Welles may have allayed their reluctance to finance a stage version of Moby Dick, while Rehearsed manages to still retain the essence of Melville’s fiction.

The central theme is Captain Ahab’s (Gerald C. Rivers) “monomania”—his obsessive hunt for Moby Dick to exact vengeance on this ivory-hued leviathan of the deep for biting his leg off during a previous whaling voyage. To do so, Ahab forsakes his mission to hunt whales for their oil to light the lamps of 19th-century America and enlists his international crew to assist him in his grim catastrophic quest for revenge.

Previously, I’ve covered Gerald C. Rivers—who is best known for his uncanny reenactments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—in mostly supporting roles at WGTB, where he’s been a member of the theatre company for 20+ years, acting there in plays such as Trouble in Mind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Tom (Rivers depicted the title character in an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). In Rehearsed Rivers stars and excels as the possessed peg-legged captain. He’s so outstanding that it’s hard to say whether he’s better as Ahab or Dr. King. Rivers’s range is remarkable, stretching from a madman fixated on payback to a prophet devoted to nonviolence and human rights. (When I saw Rivers prior to curtain time, given that he was depicting the crippled Ahab, I refrained from wishing him luck with that familiar benediction to actors about to go onstage: “Break a leg!”)

Fun fact #1

Where does the expression “Break a leg!” come from? At the end of a performance, if the audience liked the show, the actors would bend their knee (or “break” a leg) in a deep bow of acknowledgment; so to wish that to a performer is to wish that they receive appreciation from the public.

The Pequod’s crew has an international flavor. As the whaling ship’s first mate Starbuck (presumably Howard Schultz’s favorite literary character!) Colin Simon tries to maintain this Quaker’s cool by reasoning with his crackers captain, clearly a deranged superior officer. Like Simon, Dane Oliver is a WGTB veteran (and Rehearsed’s assistant director) who portrays Moby Dick’s narrator, opening the novel with those immortal words: “Call me Ishmael.” (Like many of the saga’s names, his moniker has a Biblical reference.) Melora Marshall does her usual gender-bending acting, portraying the landlady rather ominously named “Coffin” and crewman Flask; Julia Lisa is the cast’s only other female in this seafaring saga dominated by menfolk.

As Rehearsed gets underway Ishmael shares a bed with the redoubtable harpooner Queequeg (Michael McFall) at New Bedford’s Spouter-Inn (a not uncommon 19th-century practice, but somehow especially apropos as the play opened at WGTB while Gay Pride was being celebrated). A Polynesian pagan, Queequeg is a South Pacific Deadeye Dick with a harpoon and probably the most compelling male Pacific Islander character in Western literature. McFall succeeds in capturing the shrunken head salesman and coffin-maker’s whimsy and valor. (In the novel’s denouement Ishmael is saved thanks to the coffin his “bosom friend” Queequeg has carved, sensing the disaster that’s about to befall the Pequod, but alas, this existential touch is omitted in Rehearsed.)

Father Mapple, an ex-whaler turned clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, is played by Franc Ross, who also portrays Rehearsed’s theatre director or stage manager who has the Lear cast rehearse Moby Dick. Also a WGTB stalwart, especially in its Shakespearean plays, Ross has big boots to fill: Both of these roles were played by none other than Orson Welles himself in the original London production (although Welles—but of course—portrayed Ahab too!). In John Huston’s 1956 screen version of Moby Dick Welles reprised his role as Father Mapple. (In a clever reference to U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s, in the movie the Great White Whale is found near the Marshall Islands.) In the London show the role of the stage manager was played by Christopher Lee, best known for Dracula flicks.

The play’s most perplexing portrayal is of Pip, well acted by WGTB newcomer KiDané Kelati. The Pequod’s Black cabin boy comes across as a minstrel type character, although maybe I misunderstood the intent, which may have been to subvert those 19th-century racist tropes. It’s hard to tell. In Melville’s first novels, the 1840s bestsellers Typee and its sequel Omoo, Melville paints an admirable portrait of Marquesans, Tahitians and Hawaiians and is empathetic with their struggle against Western colonialism swallowing up Polynesia. On the other hand, in Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, about a revolt aboard a slave ship (the story was suggested by an actual mutiny by Blacks), Melville is at best ambiguously sympathetic to the enslaved Africans fighting for their freedom. In any case, in Rehearsed Pip is the first crew member killed by the snow white Moby Dick. (In the 1955 London production the part of Pip was played by Caucasian actress Joan Plowright in those more culturally insensitive times.)

Michael McFall and Dane Oliver / Ian Flanders

Over the years I’ve had the distinct pleasure of attending numerous shows at the amphitheater of WGTB—my favorite theatre in L.A. County—and in many of them, large casts skillfully reenact battles on the stage and, taking advantage of the outdoor setting, in the surrounding woods and hillside. Many if not all of these epic armed conflicts have been directed by Ellen Geer, the Theatricum’s producing artistic director, who likewise helms Rehearsed with help from fight choreographer Dane Oliver. Although there isn’t a Roman centurion or knight in shining armor in sight, Rehearsed’s ultimate confrontation between whale and whalers is the most thrilling action sequence I’ve ever seen staged live.

On the mostly bare boards beneath the stars, using mainly benches (and heaps of imagination supplied by the artistes and audiences!) doubling as whaleboats, the harpooners—Queequeg, Native American Tashtego (Dante Ryan) and African Daggoo (Isaac Wilkins)—hurl and sink their pointy metallic talons into Moby Dick. Holding on for dear life with the lines attached to the harpoons piercing the behemoth, the whaleboats move at breathtaking speed, producing the effect of what was called the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” Or perhaps here, one could dub it the “Topanga Slay Ride,” given the location, what’s about to befall the Pequod and its woebegone crewmen. Today’s viewers are used to Computer Generated Images in big-budget motion picture blockbusters; however, WGTB’s decidedly low tech but live “CGI” is far more exciting to behold.

Rehearsed’s grand finale, wreaking mayhem, is alone worth the price of admission and the sojourn to this theatrical enclave ensconced in the forest primeval north of Malibu. If you have to use a whaleboat or (like Orson—see below!) an ambulance, don’t miss this riveting revival of a play by a genius based on a novel by another genius.

It’s worth mentioning that this production coincides with the bicentennial of Herman Melville, born August 1, 1819, in New York City.

Fun fact #2

On and off the stage and screen, like his energy, Orson Welles’ imagination was boundless. In addition to finding a way to present Moby Dick in a theatre via the vehicle of a “rehearsal,” during the 1930s the much-in-demand Welles hit upon an ingenious way to maintain his breakneck schedule. In addition to Broadway, Welles was working in radio, from introducing the popular The Shadow series to scaring the pants off of America with his Halloween adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Given Manhattan’s daunting traffic, how did the busy Welles manage to get from Broadway to the radio studios and back on time? Welles hired an ambulance because there was a New York City law that allowed ambulances to drive through red lights when their sirens were blaring but did not require those inside to actually be injured and en route to hospitals. Now that’s genius!

Thar she blows: Moby Dick—Rehearsed plays in repertory through Sept. 29 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.