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February 8, 2008

TT: Welles and the white whale

In this week's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two shows. One is a touring production of Orson Welles' Moby-Dick--Rehearsed that will be seen all over America before opening in New York this May. The other is a new off-Broadway play, Hunting and Gathering. Here's a sample.

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mobydickweb.jpgFounded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, the Acting Company gives promising young actors and actresses a chance to appear in high-quality professional productions that tour throughout the U.S. Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers are its best-known alumni, which speaks well for its track record. The sets are simple but good, the repertory highbrow. (I first saw Jean Anouilh's "Antigone," for instance, in an Acting Company production directed by Alan Schneider that came to Kansas City, Mo., in 1978.) The company wraps up its tours in New York instead of launching them there, which is why I've never reviewed any of its shows. This season, though, it hit the ground running at Connecticut's Fairfield University, close enough to Manhattan for me to drive up and catch "Moby-Dick--Rehearsed." I was greatly impressed.

First performed in London in 1955, Orson Welles' blank-verse adaptation of Herman Melville's novel is a product of his wilderness years, the period when the creator of "Citizen Kane" had become a pariah in Hollywood. Though he started out as a stage director, Welles later became drunk on the possibilities of the silver screen and never returned to the stage in earnest, preferring to make independent films on an increasingly frayed shoestring. "Moby-Dick--Rehearsed" was to be one of his rare midlife ventures into the medium that won him his first fame. Never a fluent writer, Welles was an editor of near-genius, and here he uses that skill to create a surprisingly postmodern piece of lyric theater.

The setting is not the Pequod but the near-bare stage of an American theater circa 1890, and the characters are not sailors but members of a touring troupe that is reading through a new stage version of the saga of Captain Ahab (Seth Duerr) and the Great White Whale. In Welles' hands this conceit is not coy but startlingly effective: The outlines of "Moby-Dick" emerge bit by bit out of the idle chatter of a rehearsal, and by intermission the actors, who at first had their doubts about the project, are swept up in the task at hand.

Casey Biggs, best known as a Washington-based stage actor who also played Damar in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," has directed "Moby-Dick--Rehearsed" with close and rewarding attention to its lyric quality: The first act is more or less naturalistic, the second act frankly expressionistic, and the transition from one mode to the other is made with seamless stealth....

H%26GPhoto%20copy.jpgSome plays are better--a lot better--than they look at first glance. For ten minutes or so, Brooke Berman's "Hunting and Gathering" feels like a four-character version of a one-woman play whose too-winsome Gen-X protagonist (Keira Naughton) can't figure out how to find a New York apartment or grow up. (The first is harder.) Up-to-the-second references to cellphones and couch-surfing flutter by like confetti in a wind tunnel. But then Ms. Berman starts digging deeper, and suddenly you realize that what started out as a piece of clever fluff has turned into a poignant portrait of romance in the age of Craigslist....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 8, 2008 12:00 AM

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