As the house lights dimmed to start the Hedgerow’s production of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a sea of tiny screens remained alight. While the players took their places, the patrons checked once more the scores of basketball games and social media status.
And then, on a bare stage, eight actors seized back that attention by the throat. With just a few props (chests, ropes, and broomsticks), the cast in Kittson O’Neill’s devised piece delivered a trimmed-down, two-hour telling of Melville’s Captain Ahab (Robert Smythe) and his quest to avenge himself upon a monstrous whale that attacked his ship and took his leg.
In Nantucket, youthful sailor Ishmael (Owen Corey) and the cannibal-turned-harpooner Queequeg (Kevin Aoussou) join a rough band of whalers aboard the Pequod, bound for the Pacific to hunt whales for a prosperous New England company. Once aboard, Ahab hijacks their profitable voyage to suit his revenge, bending the wills of his chief mate, Starbuck (Adam Altman), and the crew to his irrational ends.
To their great credit, this cast and Andrea Rumble-Moore’s engaging lighting transform the empty stage from a seedy Nantucket inn to the bowels and deck of a ship and the narrow slats of a whaling boat.
Corey, Aoussou, and veteran actor Bob Weick lead a talented cast. The ensemble bursts into nautical songs, wrestles, fights, teeters over the edge of the stage as though it were a ship’s rail, and peers into the empty sea as from a high ladder. In moments both terrifying and jubilant, they evoke the camaraderie and precarious lives of brave men kept afloat from a watery doom by ingenuity, practiced habit, and dreams of fortune.
Altman-as-Starbuck’s staid gentleness serves as a bulwark against Smythe-as-Ahab’s vengeful fury. In nothing short of a tour de force performance, Smythe’s portrait of all-consuming rage drives this production. Rumble-Moore’s lighting engulfs the stage in the flames of Ahab’s hatred. The backdrop glows as these men, infected by Smythe’s all-consuming passion, push themselves onward to extinction.
Kittson’s script pares away much of Melville’s storyline, leaving in mostly moments that challenge or leaven Ahab’s vengeance while keeping a minimum of his humanity. Her highly theatricalized staging in this reduced form only touches on the enormous complexity of the original Moby-Dick.
But perhaps all we can ask for an audience is to endure a morsel as well as a mammoth. What Smythe renders more than suffices, and no small light could ever outshine what he and this cast have illuminated.