To acutely interpret Herman Melville, notorious for his longwinded prose, is no easy feat. To adapt him for the stage in sixty minutes or less is divine.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The Metropolitan Playhouse’s Fourth Annual Literature Festival focuses on the American writer Herman Melville. Through poems, staged readings, and musical interpretations, his work and personal history comes to life. This evening’s entertainment, Voyage A, featured a scripted adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd and a playful slant on the conception of Moby Dick.
Scott Barrow’s take on Billy Budd aims to do justice to a story of adventure and honor by staging it with sensitivity and spark. The plot centers around Billy, a proud and naïve sailor who volunteers—at sword-point—to be part of Claggart’s crew. As Billy, Justin Gibbs brings out the sweet sincerity of a boy on the brink of manhood. Bud’s habit of nervous stuttering while denying an accusation or admitting a wrongdoing completes Mr. Gibbs’ delightful performance. He is well met by Andrew Gruesetskie’s chill-inducing menace as Claggart. The opposing morals these two characters represent reach their tipping point when a murder occurs on deck and a decision must be made how to prosecute the offender. With no law in place nor judge to enforce it, the men aboard must decide for themselves how to resolve the situation at hand. The story reaches an unexpected conclusion, and Mr. Barrow’s compact, well-paced adaptation brings to life the challenges and consequences of determining someone else’s fate, and the haunting retributions of such reckonings.
Dan Evans takes a different approach with The Archangel: glib historical inaccuracy. In this original work, Herman Melville (Dave Powers) is a modest, uncertain man bound by writer’s block. On the brink of beginning his great masterpiece, Melville, played by a magnetic Mr. Powers, paces the stage and performs a soliloquy of his neurotic insecurities to Nell, a past-her-prime prostitute and bar owner (LuLu LoLo). Without knowing much else about what he wants to write he discloses his allegory of the great white whale to Nell, who can’t believe her ears and calls for a second opinion. Out comes Delilah (an outrageous and shrill Amy Fulgham), a prostitute possessed by an archangel and thereby controlled by a great white force of her own. Though she’s resistant at first, she soon serves as interpreter between the archangel and those in Nell’s bar in an attempt to cure Melville of his writer’s block and thrust him into a creative frenzy. Joined by humorous cameos including a smug Walt Whitman (Laurence Waltman) and an impassioned Henry David Thoreau (Christopher Norwood), this lighthearted comedy takes just enough creative license with historical figures and events to make for an absurd and unforgettable night.
If Voyage A is any indication of the rest of Melvillapalooza, then anchors aweigh: these plot twists and character idiosyncrasies that put the life and works of Melville in a new light, not just meeting our expectations, but exceeding them.