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Moby Dick Rehearsed
By Orson Welles

Through April 30

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Potomac Stages

March 24 - April 30, 2005
Moby Dick Rehearsed

Reviewed March 30
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
A Potomac Stages Pick astonishing staging

Jack Marshall again directs Orson Well's 1955 play based on Herman Melville's novel, using most of the original cast members from the well remembered 1997 production. That was the first production to draw considerable attention to the then-two year old company dedicated to presenting "great, important, and neglected plays of the Twentieth Century." This revival of that revival builds to a superb climax (as did its source novel, of course) in a demonstration of just how effective live theater can be when it concentrates on its strengths and not its weaknesses. In the age of digital special effects making everything from movies to television commercials deliver virtual spectacle, Marshall marshals his crew to create real excitement in a very personal, very direct and highly imaginative way.

Storyline: A dictatorial theater director in search of the ultimate dramatic production leads his cast in a run through of a stage version of Melville's Moby Dick with himself in the role of dictatorial ship captain in search of the ultimate prey.

In 1955, at the age of forty, Orson Wells was a washed up former wiz kid of the theater, radio and movies. Julius Ceasar, The Cradle Will Rock, Voodoo Macbeth, The Shadow, The War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane, Jane Eyre, and The Third Man were all behind him and he'd developed a reputation as, well, "difficult to work with" is way too tame a term. He turned to Melville's novel and brought his own literally inimitable style to a stage adaptation which meant, of course, that he became the focus of the piece which he would write, direct and star in as Melville's "Captain Ahab." The program says this is Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Wells, but the centrality of Wells makes it really Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Wells. This is something of a pity, for its best moments are those when Melville and not Wells shines through. In creating a one-evening presentation of the essence of Melville's 500+ page novel, Wells writing is superb. Actually, it is his editing that is superb as Marshall points out that 80% of the lines in the story of Ahab are from the novel. The concept that this is a rehearsal rather than a fully staged production releases the piece from the confines of set and costume resources. It becomes much more about what the production does with its resources than about what resources it amasses. But Wells went further, mixing in metaphors from Shakespeare in a gimmick about the cast being in the theater to rehears King Lear and not Moby Dick that comes across as simply silly.

Unlike Wells, who starred in the original production, Marshall uses an actor other than himself in the part playing the director playing Ahab. In Charles Methany he has an impressive Ahab. Of course, Methany also has to play the director in the silly King Lear side story which is a curse he has to overcome to make his Ahab fully effective. It takes him a while, but he succeeds. In the climactic whaling scene he is splendid. Splendid from the start is William Aiken who sets the transition from Wells' extraneous King Lear scenes into the core of the evening with the famous words "Call me Ishmael." His narration is the real glue that binds the pieces together. David Jourdan makes a marvelous Stubb while Timothy Hayes Lynch gives heft to the role of Starbuck. Christian Yingling goes touchingly insane as Pip.

The design and implementation of this very theatrical piece is both unique and impressively effective. A platform, a ladder and a scaffold are the principal pieces being used, but it really is Michael deBlois' utilization of those pieces, Marianne Meadows imaginative lighting, Dan Murphy's nearly ever-present sounds of creaking decks and straining ropes and the entire casts' synchronized sway that creates the world of the whaling ship Pequod. The efficiency of this concept is key to the success of the climactic battle with the white whale which is a piece of theater not to be missed.

Written by Orson Wells. Directed by Jack Marshall. Design: Michael deBlois (scenic coordinator) Rip Claassen (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Tom Fuller and David Jourdan (additional song lyrics and music direction) Shane Wallis (fight choreography) Marianne Meadows (lights) Dan Murphy (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, James G. Champlain, Jeff Consoletti, Joe Cronin, Tom Fuller, David Jourdan, Derrick Lampkins, Timothy Hayes Lynch, Chalres Metheny, Michael Sherman, John Tweel, Calres Upton, Shane Wallis, Glenn White, Christian Yingling.

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The Washington Post

'Moby Dick Rehearsed': Welles's Whale Resurfaces

By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C02

You may think you're in the wrong place when you walk into Gunston Arts Center's Theater Two for "Moby Dick Rehearsed."

With the house lights fired brightly, a dozen or so people in street clothes are milling about the messy black-box stage, some hauling equipment but most just chatting or goofing around. It's a few minutes until the show starts -- or so it seems -- and though some audience members keep an eye on the chaos, the rest pay it as much regard as the shuffling of set pieces during a play's intermission.

That is, until the group suddenly, masterfully commands everyone's attention, without so much as a lighting cue or cleared throat. Actually, there is a signal for both the audience and the nattering layabouts to shut up: the arrival of a bearded blowhard (Charles Matheny), the director of a production of "King Lear" that the fictional theater troupe before you has gathered to rehearse. The director plays King Lear himself; after one scene, however, he abruptly decides to do a cold reading of a theatrical adaptation of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" instead. His own role in the run-through? Ahab, of course.

This meta-portrayal of arrogance was penned by cinema's own megalomaniac, Orson Welles. Welles's only foray into playwriting was staged in London -- Broadway wouldn't have him -- in 1955 for three short weeks. Though a Welles-free production was mounted in New York five years later, that run was just as unsuccessful, and "Moby Dick Rehearsed" has been rarely produced since.

This makes the play just the ticket for American Century Theater, a company dedicated to the staging of neglected works. In 1997, ACT's successful production of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" put the then-two-year-old company on the radar of audiences and critics alike. This remounting, in celebration of ACT's 10-year anniversary, brings back the show's original director, Jack Marshall, as well as six of the original cast members, most notably Matheny as Ahab.

The production is an exercise in pure theater. Without costumes or set, the cast and crew of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" nonetheless manage to transport the audience to the nautical world of Melville's revenge story. Welles took 80 percent of his script directly from "Moby Dick," though the play boils down the epic novel to its bare bones: There's Ahab, naturally, the captain obsessed with killing the white whale that tore off his leg; Starbuck (Timothy Hayes Lynch), the first mate who tries to convince Ahab that his mission is dangerous and senseless; and Ishmael (William Aitken), the story's narrator and only survivor of the voyage.

Matheny, Wellesian in voice and presence, commands the most attention in ACT's production, whether barking out reproaches such as "Too many of you are standing around!" as the play-within-a-play's director or, as Ahab, passionately persuading his crew to help him hunt the whale. In Act 1, there's not much else to "Moby Dick Rehearsed" besides Ahab's speechifying, though the rest of the cast is certainly kept busy in trying to shape the imaginary setting -- singing sea chanteys, swabbing an invisible deck, or simply swaying back and forth as the crew listens to their captain. Sporadically, Marshall throws in humorous reminders that the show's supposed to be only a rehearsal, having an actor check his lines, say, or preceding the real intermission with a stage director's order that union rules dictate the cast take a break.

It's in Act 2, however, when "Moby Dick Rehearsed" really shines. With the verbose monologues that set up the story already taken care of, the play's last chapter focuses on the hunt. And even though the audience's imagination is already firmly at sea, ACT's depiction of the great white whale is still a marvel: It only takes a thunderous roar and skillful shadows (courtesy of Dan Murphy and Marianne Meadows, respectively) to make the monster's presence thrillingly felt. Of course, the cast's terrified expressions help, too.

The perfectly orchestrated trick reminds you of a question posed to Ishmael, who claimed he wanted to join Ahab's crew to see the world: "Can you not see the world from where you stand?" The accomplishment of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" is that it allows us to see it as well.

Moby Dick Rehearsed, by Orson Welles. Directed by Jack Marshall. Costumes, Rip Claasen. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through April 30 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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The Washington Examiner

'Moby Dick': Spectacle on a budget
Theater revives 1955 Welles play

By Doug Krentzlin
Special to The Examiner
Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2005 9:12 PM EST

Actor/writer/director/producer/genius Orson Welles was a born storyteller, and few things gave him greater pleasure than the challenge of finding new ways of telling a story in whatever medium he was working in.

In 1941, he was already a master of stage and radio when, at age 26, he made his first movie, "Citizen Kane," which today is generally considered to be The Great American Film.

To commemorate The American Century Theater's 10th anniversary, director and co-founder Jack Marshall has resurrected his most notable achievement to date, a revival of Welles' 1955 stage adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby Dick." First presented by TACT in 1997, "Moby Dick Rehearsed" is a tribute to the power of imagination that is nothing short of wonderful.

Welles' premise has the audience eavesdropping on what is supposed to be a rehearsal of Shakespeare's "King Lear." However, the 'director' (Charles Matheny), who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain middle-aged wunderkind, soon grows bored and decides, on a whim, to do an impromptu run-through of a new script based on Melville's classic instead. (Not surprisingly, the director calls dibs on the story's two choicest roles, Father Mapple and Captain Ahab.)

Building illusions

Lacking props, costumes and sets, the cast is forced to improvise in order to create the illusion of life aboard a 19th-century whaling vessel. Thus, a bicycle tire becomes the ship's wheel, a broom and some dowels become harpoons, and a revolving scaffold becomes a whirlpool. When the whaler encounters a storm at sea, the actors douse themselves with bottled water.

The whaler is, of course, the Pequod. As in the book, the narrator is Ishmael (William Aitken), a young sailor looking for adventure who has just signed on for what will turn out to be the Pequod's last voyage. The ship is doomed because Ahab's obsession with the whale that devoured his right leg has driven him mad. He is determined to get revenge on the leviathan known as Moby Dick, regardless of the danger to his increasingly apprehensive crew.

Capturing Welles

As the director, Matheny perfectly captures Welles' haughty arrogance, as well as his dry sense of humor. He is also suitably intense as Ahab, alternating between uncontrollable rage and inconsolable melancholy. If Matheny's Ahab seems too intense at times, keep in mind that is exactly how Melville wrote the character. As the great horror and fantasy writer Richard Matheson once put it, Ahab "has no grays; he just wants to kill the whale."

Matheny is backed up by a multi-talented ensemble that includes TACT co-founder Timothy Hayes Lynch as the ship's first mate, Starbuck; Joe Cronin as Flask; Christian Yingling as Pip; Shane Wallis as Elijah; John Tweel as Queegqueg; Derrick Lampkins as Daggoo; Glenn White as Peleg; and Tom Fuller as the shipboard stage manager, among others. David Jourdan, who plays the ship's second mate, Stubb, not only gives one of the show's best performances, but also makes use of his musical abilities by leading the many sea chanteys that are sung by the cast.

Part of the fun of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" is watching the actors ad-lib and play themselves as they do the things that actors typically do at rehearsals when they aren't working: schmoozing, horsing around, complaining about what an SOB the director is, etc. (At one point, some of the actors break into an off-the-cuff rendition of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song.)

Marshall's inspired direction employs some touches of theatrical magic worthy of the Maestro himself, especially his staging of the title character's entrance. In that scene, Ahab and his men look on in terror, screaming, as they are engulfed by Moby Dick's monstrous shadow. Marianne Meadow's lighting designs and Dan Murphy's sound effects also count as major contributions to the quality of the production.

"Moby Dick Rehearsed" is a textbook example of how to create spectacle on a shoestring budget. This is what live theater is all about.

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