If your Honors English teacher were to conjure a stage adaptation of “Moby Dick,” it might look and sound quite a lot like “Ishmael,” the one-man show with music now on stage at the Jungle Theater.
Which is to say: This is a production that prizes language above locomotion; prefers character to conflict and favors presentation to performance.
None of those are necessarily bad things, but nor do they render Herman Melville’s epic tale more accessible than it was for those of us who slogged through the Great American Novel in school.
“Moby Dick” is not a brisk read, and Leo Geter’s 90-minute distillation similarly takes its time. Jack Weston presents the novel’s narrator as an erstwhile schoolteacher, a detached, somewhat narcissistic observer who is, in Melville’s words, “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” His is a distant narrator who never fully inhabits the tale he’s telling.
On Sarah Bahr’s spare set (sailing riggings rendered in dark wood, benches and about an acre of gossamer white cloth), Weston also represents the other characters of the drama: the stoic first mate Starbuck, the enigmatic harpooner Queequeg, and of course, the obsessed Captain Ahab.
One of the keys to the success of single-performer plays is to carve out sharply drawn characters from the text. And while Weston elegantly envelops himself in the old-time-y language (lots of “thees” and “thous”), he’s less successful at creating precise character portraits with physical or vocal signatures. The most successful is his tremulous-jawed, vacant-eyed Ahab, but his transitions among characters is languid, which has the effect of bogging down the story.
Interpolating folk-bluegrass music into the story adds a layer of texture to the proceedings. When Starbuck is introduced, for instance, the trio of Kevin Kniebel (banjo), Jim Parker (mandolin & guitar) and Nate Sipe (fiddle) noodle away at “Simple Gifts,” reflecting the mate’s faith as a Quaker. Issues of faith and earthly concern also surface when the group repurposes “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” as a whaling shanty.
But those times when the music propels or informs the plot are exceptions. While the musicians (two of which are members of the popular bluegrass group Pert Near Sandstone) are consistently listenable and engaging, they feel more like an amiable add-on than an integral part of the production. Playwright Geter, who also directs the Jungle staging, doesn’t find enough opportunities to incorporate the men into the story. So, all too often, the musicians show up on stage, play, disappear for a while, then repeat the cycle.
This sense of disjointedness is perhaps the most notable quality of the ambitious “Ishmael.” Given a classic novel, a committed lead actor and a talented trio of musicians, the show ultimately is less than the sum of its parts.