Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Moby-Dick, Rehearsed—Bag & Baggage—Hillsboro, OR

“Something [Fishy] This Way Comes…”

This little done narrative play was adapted for the stage by Orson Welles from the classic book by Herman Melville.  It is directed by Scott Palmer (B&B’s Artistic Director) and will run at their space at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., through March 20th.  For more information, go to their site at www.bagnbaggage.org

This must be the year for narrative or storytelling theatre-type plays, as there’ve been two versions of Dickens’, Great Expectations (PCS & OSF), one on Shackleton by Portland Story Theatre and even Bad Kitty (OCT) has a narrator.  And now, this massive, imperfectly-adapted, whale-tale of a 1,000 page book is little more than two hours on the boards.  Imperfect because some characters, minor in the book, like Pip (Cassie Greer), the cabin-boy, are major players in the stage play, and others like Starbuck (Peter Schuyler) and Queequeg (Eric St. Cyr), major in the book, are merely supporting cogs in Welles’s version.  (By the way, this is also acknowledged by Palmer).

Outside of Welles playing Ahab, there was also Gregory Peck in a fair movie adaptation of the book and Patrick Stewart in a broader version of the story.  (There is also a new film version out now which I haven’t seen).  Things that came to mind when seeing this production were (oddly, perhaps) the legend of The Flying Dutchman, a cursed, doomed ghost ship that must forever roam the seven seas.  It also put me in mind of old Greek tragedies, where there was a sense of doom from the beginning and a Chorus commenting on and partaking in the story.  And Capt. Hook from Peter Pan, comes to mind, with his strange affinity to Tick-Tock, the alligator, who severed his hand.  And, of course, King Lear, where vanity and storms and vengeance run amuck.

The bulk of the story falls on possibly one of the toughest roles in the show, Ishmael (Jessi Walters), who has the lion’s share of narrating/storytelling of the play (as well as portraying a character in it) and so the delivery of this rests squarely on her shoulders and must she keep the audience engaged throughout with just narrative.  Luckily this role is in a pro’s hands.  The other crucial character, of course, is the possessed, Ahab (Kymberli Colbourne), who is tracking the white whale for vengeance, as he took his leg.  But, from the Bible (which weaves into the story very strongly), you know whose hands that trait should lie and, ignoring it by Ahab, is maybe why he and his ship are doomed from the beginning.

Welles’ version begins as a group of actors rehearsing the Lear play and then abruptly, for no apparent reason, change course mid-stream and decide to relate the tale of the Great White Whale.  The basic storyline is relatively straight-forward.  The owner of a whaling ship, Peleg (David Heath) has hired Ahab who, although eccentric, he feels is the best man for leading the pack.  But Ahab has other ideas and wants vengeance, as mention, on the fish who took his leg.  And so, the main crew is the practical, Starbuck, First-mate, the seasoned Stubb (Gary Strong), Second-mate and the rascal, Flask, (Heidi Kay Hunter), Third-mate, to lead his band of sailors to hell...

Also on board are the newbie, Ishmael, and a frightened cabin boy, Pip.  And there is outspoken, Elijah (Arianne Jacques), a dedicated Carpenter (Joey Copsey), and the young members of the crew, Tashtego (Mia Duckark) and Daggoo (Dawson Oliver).  Many of these roles are played by women but I (as well as Palmer) are firm believers that plays should have “blind” casting, meaning that roles should be cast according to their talent, not gender, age or culture.

This all works beautifully in Palmer’s artistic hands.  Sea shanties, ladders, movement (coach, Clara Hillier), flags, crates and terrific lighting (designer, Molly Stowe) create the atmosphere to transport you to another time and world.  I am never disappointed in Palmer’s shows and this one is no exception.  He has possibly one of the five best ensemble theatre groups in the greater Portland area, I believe.  And his choice of women in key roles is spot on.

Colbourne succeeds as Ahab in one specific way, she makes him more human.  And, by doing that, we are able to identify with the torture he must be going through.  We all have our demons and she succeeds in holding his up to the mirror, fatefully acknowledging that it is a death’s head.  Very well played.  Walters, as the storyteller, does an amazing job with the words, keeping us fully in tune with the ebb and flow of the tale.  She is always worth watching in their productions.  And Greer is a jewel, one of the ten best actors, in my opinion, in the greater Portland area.  Her monologue as a young, black boy, mind you, slipping into possible madness, is totally believable and mesmerizing.  Her voice and the way she controls her body are strong assets to her success.  I’m sure she will play many more captivating roles (as she has in the past) in the future.  Again, bravo, Greer!

A couple shout-outs I wish to make, to Hillier, a fine actor in her own right with many companies, and Beth Lewis, B&B’s Managing Director, with helping me with transportation to and from the theatre, going above and beyond the call of duty, I believe.  They are angels in my eyes!

And the restaurant,   www.venetiantheatre.com in the same building, is worth taking notice of, as their food is very reasonable and well prepared (their Hungarian Mushroom soup is to die-for) and the service is very friendly.  Well worth taking the extra time for lunch or dinner there before or after a show.

I highly recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it and/or eat at the restaurant, please tell them Dennis sent you.