The meeting of historical giants has long been a favorite topic of drama. Whether it's a virtual documentary (Frost/Nixon), a more stylized imagining (Copenhagen), or complete balderdash (Travesties, Picasso at the Lapin Agile), something fascinates us about the dramatic tension that occurs when literary, philosophical, or political geniuses collide. Can you imagine, then, the meeting of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two masters at the dark heart of American literature? That is the question posed by Kraken, Len Jenkin's alternately fascinating and frustrating play, currently at Walkerspace. Based on the pair's true-life friendship, Kraken is a mélange of history, metaphor, and death.
In fact, Death, in the person of a young woman (Heidi Niedermeyer), literally stalks the characters throughout this play. When Melville (Tom Escovar), depressed by his artistic and personal failings, embarks on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she is there. On the way, he visits his old friend Hawthorne (Augustus Truhn), who is serving as American consul in Southport, England. The introduction of Hawthorne prompts Death to leave Melville's side, but she is never very far away. Both authors, who produced such classics as Moby-Dick, "Benito Cereno," The Scarlet Letter, and "Young Goodman Brown," were well acquainted with evil, madness, despair, and other dark matters.
Indeed, for good chunks of Kraken, the darkness is gripping. As Melville grapples with feelings of despair and worthlessness, he longs for the release of a suicide he cannot commit. Hawthorne is wracked with illness, facing the last years of his life watching his artistic output ebb. All this is witnessed by Hawthorne's wife, Sophia (Tracy Liz Miller), who longs to help but is powerless to do anything.
Even more compelling are the characters the men meet in Southport. A phony Russian huckster named Malkovsky (Marc Geller) and his "tattooed princess"/prostitute/wife (Eva Patton) have too many secrets to be merely comic relief. Then there is Father Jeremy (Richardson Jones), a priest devastated by the cruelty he has witnessed, and whose faith is as tenuous as any character in one of Hawthorne's or Melville's works.
In moments like these, Jenkin's writing is top-notch, with some scenes making for remarkable short plays in and of themselves. The trouble, though, is a lack of cohesion among all these threads. One is never quite sure exactly what story is being told. Is it one man's struggle with irrelevance and depression? Or two writers coming to terms with a world that simultaneously influences and disgusts them? Or one woman helpless against death's hold on the two men in her life?
Exacerbating this problem is a series of needlessly complex framing devices: the play begins with a prologue by Death, who reads from Melville's Moby-Dick; then it moves to Southport, November 1856, where Sophia is forced to do some expository heavy lifting. Next, it flashes-forward to Melville in Palestine in December of the same year, reflecting on the voyage he has just finished. Finally, it comes to rest in October at the start of his trip, where the narrative begins in earnest. Hawthorne isn't even onstage yet, and already one's head is spinning.
Director Michael Kimmel has done a remarkable job of trying to make all this come together. For the most part, his staging is crisp, with many quite lovely juxtapositions and stage pictures. The way Sophia sings near-angelic music downstage from Malkovsky's ugly business is a particularly nice counterpoint. Escovar brings a slow-burning intensity to Melville, which is sometimes weighed down by being a little too slow in its burning. Truhn, as Hawthorne, has crafted a subtle and compelling performance that is hard not to watch.
The technical elements, including Ben Kato's sets and lights and Scott O'Brien's original music and sound design, create an almost impressionistic setting. A murky haze, crashing waves, and a relentlessly ticking clock provide a heightened realism that is lovely to be in the midst of. Unfortunately, though, it also reminds one of the script's amorphous shortcomings.
One thing that provides some unity to the play is repeated reference to the titular sea monster. Although the sheer number of allusions to the Kraken becomes a little heavy-handed, it nonetheless remains an impressive image. Like all good metaphors, it is open-ended and could refer to any number of things. Is the Kraken death? Despair? Or is it perhaps the cross of literary fortune that these two giants had to bear, each in his own way?