Moby-Dick at the Building Stage | Theater review

A brilliant adaptation cleverly translates Melville’s sprawling epic to the stage.

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Moby-Dick at the Building Stage

Moby-Dick at the Building Stage Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Despite having a central figure who calls to mind Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece doesn’t lend itself easily to theatrical adaptation. As any AP English student can tell you, the novel is long and ungainly and contains in-depth technical descriptions of blubber. A stage version that captures the spirit of the original, rather than turning it into a watered-down adventure story, somehow has to find a way of translating its sprawling multifariousness into a theatrical idiom.


The Building Stage’s brilliant adaptation—a remount, with revisions, of a 2006 production—does just that. Set on a wooden, blackboard-equipped set alternately evoking a classroom and the deck of the Pequod, three men and three women in tweeds ask us to call them Ishmael and begin narrating the story of Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal hunt for Moby-Dick. Reflecting the book’s discursive nature, they continually interrupt each other to demonstrate harpooning techniques, rhapsodize about life on the sea and ponder man’s place in the cosmos. Performers assume the role of Ahab in turn by donning a black leather overcoat. As his madness takes over the ship, the coat becomes ever more difficult to relinquish.


Director Blake Montgomery’s methods—which incorporate toy boats, synchronized movement and a trio of percussionists perched above the stage—are low-tech but powerful. Best of all, this gripping interpretation never compromises the novel’s grandeur and complexity. I missed Queequeg, who’s cut out entirely, and the room felt a little warm, but otherwise the thing is damn near perfect.


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