This is not the first time Moby Dick has been the inspiration for a song-fest - and it has not always been a happy association. Recently Laurie Anderson created a long musical version, and nine years ago Cameron Mackintosh produced one in the West End in which public-school girls, dressed in gym bloomers, put on a terrible show within a terrible show. This one, produced by the Foundry Theatre of New York, is a lot more bearable, but only, I'm afraid, by virtue of being shorter.
Interpretations of any classic are bound to be variable, but I think everyone would agree that if there is one thing that Moby Dick is not - as the title and length alone make plain - it is minimalist. Shaggy and baggy, Melville's masterpiece is loosely stuffed with fact, myth, poetry, history, and a large cast of seafarers. Nor is the novel precious - whaling is not an occupation for sissies, and Melville paints it with a broad, slashing brush.
Yet precious and minimalist are the words for this piece, composed by Rinde Eckert and directed by David Schweizer. A whimsical, introverted version of the saga could be a funny skit, but Eckert takes his work very seriously indeed. A bald, portly man in a crumpled suit, he is on stage for its entire 90 minutes, along with Nora Cole as his imaginary muse. Above the stage a forest of light bulbs dangles, on different lengths of cable, along with several tape recorders draped with tinsel. Eckert, playing an opera composer named Nathan, sits for much of the time at a grand piano, girded with rope and covered with notes and messages. The muse, in a red corset and red dress, joins him in singing excerpts from his work-in-progress, swaying in the wind, and dancing the hornpipe.
But Moby Dick isn't all that's on the composer's plate. As a voice on one of the tape recorders informs him, he is suffering from a degenerative disease of the brain. The voice must remind him of this fact, as well as his name and the nature of his work. It instructs him to turn the tape off when he feels he no longer needs it. As the piece continues, he keeps the tape on longer and longer each time it plays. Towards the end, it announces, "If you're still listening, your disease has progressed." There may be a connection between the two strands other than an excuse for Nathan (and Eckert) not to compose the entire work, and a bid for unearned sympathy, but I missed it. The dimming lights suggest that we are indeed meant to be saddened by the loss of Nathan's great work, but the excerpts we hear ensure we won't. Eckert and Cole have lovely voices, but what they sing is utterly trite - standard whoosh-whoosh storm music, cheery jigs. Nathan sings that the ship sails "the watery places of the world" - not a necessary point to make. The cabin boy is evoked by Nathan's singing (falsetto) "Shenandoah" - a song from everybody's first collection of vocal Americana.
A few remarks by the tape voice - it says Nathan can listen to what the muse has to say about the dark night of the soul, but he mustn't take her advice on cooking - indicate that the author meant this piece to have a few laughs. But, as with insight, all it has is the intention.
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