I’m not wowed easily when it comes to the stage. I approach each show with positive hope that I’ll be witness to a new story or new way of telling a story, but I don’t bank on it. I don’t mean to sound jaded or cynical at all, I’m still extremely passionate about live theater, but I just don’t expect to be enthralled each time I take my seat. I’ve seen a lot of plays. A lot of devices and effects. I’ve seen my share of great actors and performances as well as a variety of stage craft and ingenuity. I’ve been wooed by the creative use of minimal set, as well as the complexity and spectacle of big budget magic, many times. In my 35 years (since the age of 4) of doing theatre and from studying, researching, directing, acting, writing, stage managing, technical designing, physically building, critically reviewing and watching shows, the new and/or exciting is a somewhat rare commodity. But, I love being surprised and Stanford Repertory Theater has done just that, with their wickedly gorgeous and richly layered production of…of all things…Moby Dick Rehearsed.
You have to forgive me for that bit of digital eye-roll and the tongue in cheek presentation of the show title, it’s just that as an English and Drama major, between the book and the implied “process” with “rehearsed” I was set up in my mind for a kind of collegiate purgatory. Bias!? Me? I know, but the fact is, I don’t ever see myself being enchanted by the source material and agreeing to its classic status. I don’t find the story compelling or the prose to be pretty. I don’t identify with the characters or remotely like the themes, and I’m generally nauseated when I think about whaling. I have zero personal, human connection to the story (okay, many a teeny-tiny-itsy-bitsy part of the whale I get) but somehow this crew conjured up a telling of it that captured my interest and pulled me in. While I didn’t care WHAT they were saying at my core, I was totally moved by how they said it. Every precise vocal and physical choice, each accent, echo, choreographed and carefully staged pose and picture, every resonating chord, all of it, like an artistic harpoon grabbing my imagination into this transcendent creative space and not letting me go until there was nothing left to experience. Until depth itself had been exhausted. Until there were no more layers, tricks or through-lines to expose. The result was indeed, unexpected, fascinating, suspenseful, detailed and undeniably quite admirable.
While the first 10 minutes of set up felt gimmicky, meta and very staged to me (intentionally I presume and a necessary “evil” in order to build and contrast) it did provide a wonderful vessel for the rest of the play to move about, grow and flow in. Perhaps, too many days playing “games” and trying to get out of group warm ups in my early theatre training life, tainted my enjoyment of the “rehearsed” part of this show, but the rest of the adventure made up for it tenfold.
The use of the space and set, vertical, horizontal, the back of the house, the wings…it’s the kind of 3 or maybe even 4 or 5 dimensional directing I really want to see more of. The physical requirements of each actor to navigate the set were symbolic and practical. The simple, raw scaffolding a blank canvas and the actors the paint, moving about creating frame after frame of compelling images. To say its immersive theatre might sound inconceivably cliché, but this production did an exceptional job of making you feel you were traveling with the Pequod as a member of the crew and as an observer too; A voyager AND a voyeur, simultaneously. Audiences sometimes want to be one or the other, limbo can be uncomfortable and being in and out has been known to be more disruptive than affective. Are you there to escape reality or made to be reminded of it? I don’t know exactly how, but I really think this ensemble was able to pull off this difficult and unique relationship with its audience impeccably.
I was unprepared for the beautiful and completely organic, live musical component of this piece. The presence of and performance of acoustic sea shanties, live violin, and hauntingly ambient harmonies were very nearly goose-bump inducing and so natural it made me think I might have actually enjoyed the book if this had been my reading soundtrack. Transformative, delightful and strategic in its use, the music added so much richness to the piece overall. Super-duper, mega like for the music. You may all come to my cube and sing me through my workday anytime. <- Seriously, anytime.
One of the most impactful components was the best lighting and sound design combination I’ve seen in probably… well, in forever. Seriously, the design and execution (light and sound ops get a huge thumbs up from me) was just short of mind-blowing. The precise hues of blue, the movement to not just emulate water but the specific condition of the ocean at any given moment, the play in the shadows that took place behind the immediate action, the reflection of the moon on the skin of a white whale somehow totally believable and by the way visible even when it wasn’t there…I could wax on about this for a very long, long time. The actor generated sound effects, the metaphorical quality of acoustics in the theatre, along with a gentle mix of manufactured yet authentic, ambient sound scoring the ship’s expedition was really cool. I can’t come up with a better word. Just, so cool. Mime which is used quite a bit in this piece could have been a ridiculously jarring element, but used in combination with clever lighting, focused synchronicity, solid sound and the music, it came together masterfully. I genuinely feel that the tech made the actors even more real and the actors made the tech even better. A completely symbiotic marriage between all the parts and a great example of the collaborative nature live performance can and really should be. Quite a feat, just so exquisitely done.
I’m of the opinion that the standing ovation is ridiculously overused in theater these days. I see far too many people automatically stand at the end of a play with no real thought behind it and even less feeling. I commonly observe it being used the same way one would just applaud and an equal number of people reluctantly stand up out of politeness, peer pressure, sight obstruction, or just getting ready to leave. Not to invalidate anyone who is actually moved to their feet by a performance of any kind, but a standing O often times runs the risk of being forced, trite and meaningless. On Saturday I saw something that I have never seen in theater specifically before. I saw an audience that clapped strongly, appreciatively and sincerely, unwavering for a good 2 minutes, from the last brilliant beat of the show, through the curtain call and on and on until the cast (who I think was a tad flabbergasted as they obviously did not have an encore prepared) came out again for another bow. Sure, at that point a few people stood up, but it was as if the audience wanted to applaud not just the cast, but the designers, the space, the production as a whole and make up for all those beautiful pictures, sounds and complete moments that there hadn’t been opportunity to specifically honor with applause during the journey. It felt genuine, appropriate, deserved and very special just like the production.
The bottom line is, this team of artists (in every true sense of the word) has managed to cast a spell over me and I think just about everyone that sat in the audience last Saturday. 4 ½ jewels in the review tiara out of 5 for this astoundingly sound, visually and vocally remarkable, 90 minute tour de force (okay, minus that first 10 minutes). Sit toward the back center if you can to take in the big picture in all its superbly crafted glory. Moby Dick Rehearsed plays through August 10th at the Pigott theater on the Stanford Campus.