Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Jack Weston (foreground) with Kevin Kniebel,
Jim Parker, and Nate Sipe

Photo by Dan Norman
"Moby Dick," Herman Melville's great literary opus, is considered one of the masterworks of American literature, often appearing on the short list of contenders for the mantle of the "Great American Novel." Just last week, it appeared on a list of "forty books everyone should read" published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Set in the first decades of the 19th century, Melville's dense work tells of obsessed Captain Ahab's quest for vengeance against the giant white whale that bit off half his leg, rife with symbolism and burdened with excessive description. Thus, over the years it has been become both a popular subject of literary analysis and the bane of generations of high school readers. "Moby Dick" has been adapted numerous times for the stage, but the massive scope of the story and detail embedded in Melville's narrative has proven difficult for theater productions to adequately capture.

Leo Getter's new adaption, Ishmael, now playing at the Jungle Theater, takes a less-is-more approach. Named for the novel's narrator, who famously speaks the first line of the book, "Call me Ishmael," rather than for the whale which is the object of Ahab's obsession, Getter has pared the narrative down to ninety minutes and molded it into a storytelling format. A man enters the stage: It is Ishmael, an educated New Yorker whose restlessness of the soul led him to take up work on the whaling ship the Pequod out of Nantucket. Ishmael is here to tell us his story, along the way assuming the numerous other roles, animating the story through voice and gesture. Atmospheric musical underscoring composed and performed by a trio of folk musicians, playing banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle—with a bit of clog dancing providing percussive momentum—adds warmth and color to the work. At intervals, the story pauses and the musicians play full out musical pieces that comment upon what has just occurred, or set the tone for what is to come next.

Drawing from the stirring tale conjured by Melville, and sifting out much of its excessive description and incidents, gives Getter a robust starting point for his play. The title shifts the focus away from the ponderous question of the whale at the heart of Ahab's obsession, the drive to seek vengeance over all other sensible pursuits, and the nature of the beast, Moby Dick, itself. Is Moby Dick a vessel of evil in need of eradication, or is the whale simply the pinnacle of nature's power and the evil residing in those who are driven to subdue it? Instead, we are fellow travelers with Ishmael, the restless sailor who—by necessity as our guide through the journey—is first and last to speak. Ishmael's story becomes the reason we are there, the reason we listen, and his crisp, compelling delivery makes Ishmael a powerful piece of theater.

Naturally, with one actor carrying the burden of telling the story and portraying a vastly different characters—the innkeeper in New Bedford where Ishmael first enters his new realm; Queequeg, the stoic Polynesian whaler who becomes Ishmael's companion; the staunch minister Father Mapple whose sermon on "Jonah and the Whale" seems prophetic; first, second and third mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, respectively; and of course, fearsome Captain Ahab—that actor had better be stellar. Jack Weston is just that. Weston has been with Ishmael from its origins at the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival (then called White Whale) and through its further development at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, Montana. Weston commands the stage with his solid frame crowned by thick black locks. He gives each character a distinct voice that is respectful and natural, free of exaggerated affects.

His partners on stage, the musicians, maintain a constant presence as if observing through ocean swells, seamlessly pouring forth music, and stepping forward for songs. Banjo player Kevin Kniebel is lead singer for the trio. He and fiddle player Nate Sipe compose two-fifths of Minnesota-based folk group Pert Near Sandstone. Guitarist, mandolin player, and clog dancer Jim Parker also has Minnesota roots. Their music in Ishmael offers smooth harmonies and yearning voices at one with story.

Sarah Bahr's design for the set establishes the spare environment of wood and rope that surrounds the men at sea, with a white sail dropped down when called for, and Father Mapple's pulpit doubling as a casket that serves a critical purpose. The costumes are straight 1840s, with Ishmael starting out as a city-bred adventure seeker, while the musicians have been living on the land. The sound by Sean Healey provides the roar of the sea and wind, while Bill Healey's lighting draws the story in and out of harm's way.

Anyone looking for a complete retelling of Melville's novel will mark the absence of many characters and incidents. In "Moby Dick," the Pequod meets up with other ships at sea nine times—gams, as such meetings on open waters are called. In Ishmael, only one such meeting occurs, with the ship Rachel, but serves as indicator of Ahab's fevered loss of all reason, and of his humanity, driven as he is by the hunt for his whale. Similarly, all the markers that turn the narrative one way or another are in place, though the passages between are greatly thinned out. The result turns the massive, full-bodied work of the novelist that creates its own universe into a straight-ahead story brought to life by the passionate storyteller who, alone, knows both its beginning and its end. This gripping production gives us a great yarn, and makes for good theater.

Ishmael, at the Jungle Theater through February 4, 2018. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $45.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. $25.00 public rush and $20.00 student rush (one ticket with ID), for unsold seats two hours before performance at box office. For tickets call 612-822-7073 or visit

Writer and Director: Leo Getter, adopted from the original text of Herman Melville's Moby Dick; Producer: Michael L. Snow. Set and Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Bill Healey; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Stage Manager: John Novak; Technical Director: Leazah Behren; Production Manager: Matthew Early.

Cast: Jack Weston (Ishmael and others)

Band: Kevin Kniebel (banjo, voice), Jim Parker (mandolin, guitar, clogging, voice), Nate Sipe (fiddle, voice).

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