Moby Dick

The cast of Theatre in the Dark's "Moby Dick." Clockwise from top left: Robinson J. Cyprian, Corey Bradberry, Mack Gordon, Elizabeth McCoy. 

Before the pandemic, Theatre in the Dark was starting to make a name for itself with a novel concept. The company's first show, the noir mystery-thriller “Three Stories Up,” was performed completely in the dark. Literally “noir,” it featured two actors playing multiple characters and live Foley effects designed to immerse the audience in the sounds only inches away.

After the shutdown, Theatre in the Dark not surprisingly pivoted to audio plays, adapting “Three Stories Up” to the new format and following with “A War of the Worlds” and “A Christmas Carol in the Dark.” The plays still are performed live but now they are live-streamed over Zoom, without any video.

The idea is that you are supposed to cozy up to your computer with the lights off, cradle a cocktail devised for the occasion (recipes provided) and let the words and sounds envelop you. The actors aren't in the same room, of course; instead they're spread out across North America. The audience can come from far afield, too.

Theatre in the Dark's latest and arguably most ambitious project is “Moby Dick in the Dark.” Producing artistic director Corey Bradberry has adapted Herman Melville's weighty 600-plus page novel, streamlining it to roughly ninety minutes. Based in Chicago, he also directs the three actors who take on all the roles. Elizabeth McCoy, featured as Ishmael, and Robinson J. Cyprian as Captain Ahab, are in New Orleans, while Mack Gordon as Starbuck hails from Vancouver. Live Foley effects, recorded sound and an original score by Nick Montopoli of Austin, Texas, complete the....well, not the picture exactly, but the vision for the performance.

Although creating this virtual “Moby Dick” was an impressive feat, both the script and the execution are somewhat disappointing. No one can fault Bradberry for condensing Melville's epic symbolic tale of Captain Ahab's vengeful quest for the eponymous white sperm whale who took his leg into a classic adventure story, or for cutting out a manual's worth of information on 19th-century whaling practices, but some aspects of novice Ishmael's three-year voyage on the Pequod are given short shrift.

The one that disturbs me most is the elimination of the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, who is merely mentioned as one of three harpooners on the ship. It's one of the most significant relationships in the novel, from their meeting as reluctant bed mates at the inn before the voyage to Ishmael's survival by floating on the coffin Queequeg had carved for himself. Replete with insights about preconceptions and prejudice, it seems far more important than Ahab's interest in Pip, the youthful African-American sailor from the South who meets an unfortunate end at sea and gets more attention from Bradberry.

For the most part, the storytelling is fairly clear and Melville's language is allowed full scope, even when it's a bit hard to understand, but the disadvantage of having so few actors play so many characters is that the voices often sound phony. Add to this a penchant for overacting, and the results are amateurish compared to some audio plays I've listened to lately. At the other end of the spectrum, McCoy's Ishmael is comparatively understated, which works for a narrator, and having a woman play the role helps distinguish her voice from the others.

Some parts of the sound design and music are most effective, but others somehow miss the mark. Occasionally, Bradberry or the actors break the “fourth wall” — if there were a wall — to offer comments that emphasize the liveness of the production, but this practice is distracting more than anything else.

On balance, I suspect “Moby Dick in the Dark” would be more powerful if it could be performed live in a theater, and I'm not sure live-streamed is any better than prerecorded would be. Interestingly, a streamable on-demand option (i.e. recorded) is also available April 1-10. Naturally, the preferred beverage is grog.

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