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Review: Hip Pocket Theatre's Dreamy 'Moby-Dick' …

by Jerome Weeks 8 Jul 2012 3:03 PM

… ‘dreamy’ being a term not typically associated with the Herman Melville novel. But then, a thin-yet-lovely, one-hour-long, mimed-puppet stage version of the novel is not exactly typical, either.


Michael Joe Goggans as Capt. Ahab in the Hip Pocket Theatre’s Moby-Dick

Obviously, adapting Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into another medium — movie, comic-book, opera, ballet, Orson Welles drama — involves massive amounts of editing. The result, in the worst of such efforts, is mere reduction; the best are transformations into a different artwork. So the question with the Hip Pocket Theatre’s current stage adaptation becomes, What do puppetry, mime and music bring to Moby-Dick — that only they can?

For one of her annual returns to her Fort Worth home, Lake Simons — talented daughter of Hip Pocket founders Johnny and Diane Simons — has used her extensive background in physical theater and puppetry to adapt Moby-Dick. The oceanic scale of such a project makes it seem foolhardy, transporting Melville’s encyclopedic, cosmic war for the soul of America to a rustic little stage with a seven-person chorus, lights, a few sticks and some fabric.

So why do it? Lake Simons’ answer is to turn Moby-Dick into a miniature, poetic pageant that lacks much of Melville’s heart-stirring grandeur (and ponderousness) but plays like a dream of fish and men and water. The ancient Greek writer Lucian of Samosata saw a troupe of pantomime artists in performance and exclaimed that we don’t ‘hear’ the story they tell, neither do we just see it. It’s both, he said, it’s as if ‘the performers’ fingers were tongues.’ At its best moments, Simons’ Moby-Dick achieves that fusion; we re-experience Melville’s story as something new. Too bad there aren’t more such moments; too often we get a kind of vague lyricism.

It’s quickly apparent Simons is not after what we typically extract from a novel like Melville’s: psychological depth, character interaction, historic setting. The famous opening lines are sorted out to different men and women of the chorus, making Ishmael, our narrator, immediately disembodied. They’re all Ishmael, none of them is Ishmael. They’re the crew, they’re the whales and — in one of Simons’ graceful, seemingly offhand inventions — they’re even the whale boats. The performers bend the bamboo sticks they use for harpoons into the boats’ prows, and off they go a-whaling.

The only character who remains consistent is Ahab, played by Michael Joe Goggans (above). Goggans certainly looks gaunt and grizzled enough for the role, but he doesn’t have a sufficiently forceful presence. He isn’t a towering, frightening Ahab, neither is he a haunted, sympathetic figure. He may be obsessive, but he’s as much a stick as the bamboo in the chorus members’ hands.

But it’s with Ahab that Simons produces some of her best magic. At one point, Goggans stands and a white cloth is stretched in front of him, with only his head appearing at the top. It’s an overhead shot, as it were; we are looking down on Ahab as he sleeps and dreams. The bedsheet then becomes the screen for a shadow-puppet re-enactment of the backstory, how the captain lost his leg to Moby Dick. Simons pulls a similar overhead shot when we see the captain tracking the Pequod’s progress on his nautical charts. It’s a seemingly simple technique, but like the entire adaptation itself, it pivots the story around to a changed, cinematic perspective.

Other lovely, transformative moments occur when the entire chorus randomly wanders the stage, back and forth, one hand wriggling in front of each: They’re schools of fish. But other evocative images — like the whales being portrayed by long banners of silky fabric, trailed in the air — tend to disembody the story even more. Nothing much is at stake when the whales remain mostly will-‘o-the-whisps. The one time they exist in a more fleshy sense is when Simons, at clunky length, illustrates Melville’s passages on how the whales’ carcasses are cut up and their blubber boiled for oil. The whales’ status as the targets of an industrialized harvest could have been more easily evoked — with, say, red handkerchiefs spurting blood as they’re harpooned. (In fact, some of the best ‘anchoring’ throughout is provided by composer-performer-frequent-Simons-collaborator John Dyer with his pulsing electronic music and his rattling sound effects.)

Overall, in Simons’ hands, nature appears graceful, ethereal and free-flowing, often the female-ish victim to the males who are driven and destructive. If I’m reading her adaptation correctly, it’s an eco-sentimental simplification of Melville’s complex treatment of the natural world, which includes extended ruminations on the White Whale as dumb creature, malevolent force or blank slate. In the Hip Pocket version, Ahab is just a Bad Man or a Mad Man in attacking the White Whale. Melville himself called him a ‘monomaniac’ but also, obsessed with Shakespeare’s tragedies, he granted Ahab a tragic status on the order of King Lear. He made Ahab the expression of  a deep, even essential component of the American psyche: the drive to shape ourselves and our destiny. Without that shred of identification with him, to the audience, Ahab’s just a nut who takes everyone else down in his insane revenge against a jumbo seafood platter.

In fact, Simons’ most sympathetic treatment of Ahab comes only at the very end — when she replaces Ishmael’s famous rescue on Queequeg’s coffin with a final, farewell image of another bit of floating debris, isolated and vulnerable. It’s extremely hard to pare things down to that kind of beautiful, simple, singular symbol. That’s when Simons, Dyer and lighting designer Nikkie DeShea Smith give all of this — which can seem like so much child’s play — the emotional force of visual poetry.