Jungle harpoons a remarkable Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick
The Jungle Theater's premiere of local playwright Kent Stephens' Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick voyages with the drive of Captain Ahab's obsession and the flair of Orson Welles' celebrated creativity. And it's a gleeful paean to the art of making theater.
In a truly ensemble production that's as much about the lighting and sound design as the acting, director Bain Boehlke conjures from Stephens' witty script a theatrical stage magic, packed with layers of reference, unpredictability and laughter.
The comedy opens on the bare stage of the Duke of York Theatre in London in 1955, where Orson Welles directed his critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick. Welles circumvented the difficulties of having a ship, a whale and the sea on stage by creating a play-within-a-play in which a company of actors prepare to stage Moby Dick. Playwright Stephens re-imagines the rehearsal for this unlikely project, as six young actors gather to work with the volatile Welles to fashion a play that is being written as it goes. Like the crew of the Pequod, they are at first skeptical and rebellious but, as Welles drives them to exhaustion in the pursuit of pure art, they take up his passion.
Kristopher Lencowski as the apple-cheeked young actor, Gordon, launches the play with the words, "Call me Gordon," an echo of the famous opening line of Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael." This small treat of recognition serves to invite the audience in on the fun from the very beginning. Stephens has carpented into his script veiled references to Melville's novel and to Welles' famous film Citizen Kane, and it's fun to catch them where you can.
Welles broke cinematic ground with his light and sound designs in Kane and, with an almost palpable sense of delight, director Boehlke and lighting designer Barry Browning recreate the shadowy drama of Welles' lighting from the film for this production. Boehlke infuses the dark stage with mist, so that a cone of light takes on a material quality in the smoky atmosphere and, in the murk, the unadorned stage achieves an endless depth. Light comes from unexpected angles and, in Scott Edwards' playful sound design, the stage house creaks like an old wooden whaling ship, rolling on a sleepy sea.
Garry Geiken's ample Welles comes initially as a taunting, God-like voice from the stalls and, just when you think this device could become tiresome, he makes a playfully anticlimactic entrance. Geiken convinces as the egotistical Welles, who at 40 was drinking heavily, hounded by self-doubt and desperate to make art as he had in his prodigious youth. Welles complains of narrow ankles, but he limps as though he might have a wooden leg. Fittingly, he gives himself the role of Ahab.
Young Gordon, who plays Ishmael, the Pequod's lone survivor, steps in and out of the action to narrate snippets of the play in the manner of a voiceover, a technique pioneered by Welles. Lencowski brings a pleasing freshness to his role, but his attempts at a Scottish accent distract.
As the rehearsal progresses, the actors evolve as individuals and all give credible performances. Lindsay Hinman's Joan is an abused young woman to whom Welles tries to restore a sense of self-worth. Ron Menzel as the quiet Irish actor, Patrick, has a strong scene. Michael Ritchie camps up as Ken, and Shawn Hamilton's urbane Percy, a black South African, wrestles with his personal whale, the implacable bastion of apartheid.
Beth Gilleland plays the mother hen stage manager in a fine English accent, and she surprises as Marlene Dietrich - yes, Dietrich! I told you Orson Welles Rehearses is unpredictable. And the chameleon actor Stephen D'Ambrose plays four small parts with consummate panache.
Every now and then, the right play finds its way to the right director, production team and cast, and engaging magic happens on stage. The Jungle's wonderfully theatrical Orson Welles Rehearses is just such a play; it should sail far.
Orsen Welles Rehearses Moby Dick. July 11 - August 24. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. $19 - $30. The Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call: 612-822-7063.