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REVIEW: Ishmael Chases a White Whale (Jungle Theater)

A promotional image for the Jungle Theater’s Ishmael.

The Jungle Theater’s new season – its last before it moves to a traditional fall-summer format – casts off with a hunt for a great white whale. Ishmael, now playing at the Jungle, is an adaptation of the classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. Director-playwright Leo Geter’s adaptation premiered in an earlier form at the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Its dialogue, according to Geter, comes “directly from the book” with some rearrangements and deletions. Ishmael has some strong moments, but its efforts to retain the book’s original wording and verbosity is limiting in the theatrical format.

Jack Weston takes the spotlight in the Jungle Theater’s Ishmael. Photo by Dan Norman.

This central conceit, a great white whale in its own right, is where Ishmael founders. Even though Moby Dick is often considered the “great American novel”, it’s a dense read. (The original British edition was massively cut in an attempt to improve its readability.) It failed to ignite my interest when I read it in high school: after a valiant effort to read the first 200 pages, I eventually quit reading and returned Moby to the library.

While the novel Moby Dick touches on significant themes of obsession and vengeance, Melville digresses a great deal in providing overly detailed portraits of the characters and excessive descriptions of locations, boats, and especially whales. Geter’s play mercifully omits several chapters on the biology of sperm whales, but other efforts to use Melville’s exact words produce a passive tale told in the past tense – rather than a story brought to life. Geter’s use of Melville’s words like “instantly” or “suddenly”, rather than demonstrating these through movement on stage, leads to several stilted action scenes.

A more successful aspect of Geter’s play is how it highlights Melville’s humor. This is best showed when the narrator Ishmael describes his first encounter with his temporary roommate and future shipmate, Queequeg – a veteran harpooner and Polynesian who sells real shrunken heads as a side line. Melville’s depiction of Queequeg caters to stereotypes, but Geter’s play emphasizes Ishmael’s broadminded acceptance of his new acquaintance, noting that it is “better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”.

The star of this production is actor Jack Weston, who takes speaking roles both large and small for 95 minutes of theatre. His looks and rich voice are perfect for the titular narrator Ishmael, but the lines between roles are more blurred than strong. Many of the characters are not significantly distinct in mannerisms or voice.

Jack Weston (right) backed by what a Star Tribune writer called one of the worst-named bands in Minnesota. (Opinions differ.) Photo by Dan Norman.

This is not to say that Weston is the only person on stage. Three members of the bluegrass/newgrass band Pert Near Sandstone periodically appear as supernumeraries and as musicians: Jim Parker, Kevin Knibel, and Nate Sipe. Many of their entrances and exits integrate with the action on the stage, casting them as silent churchgoers and crew members. This device is often more effective at creating the sense of spectacle and context than the character flips.

Sarah Bahr’s costume design authentically portrays the time period of the 1850s, both for Weston and the musicians. Bahr’s barebones scenic design is impressive, recreating an inn, a cathedral, and the ill-fated ship Pequod. Bill Healey’s lighting helps create the aura of the sea with light and various stages of darkness. Sean Healey’s sound design compliments this aura; all that’s missing in the setting is the scent of saltwater.

Ishmael plays at the Jungle Theater through February 4, 2018.

Bev Wolfe