Beyond the Sea

In the same way Herman Melville experimented with language in Moby-Dick, Carlo Adinolfi, in his one-man stage adaptation of the novel, manipulates his voice and body. With similar playfulness, The Whale, presented by Concrete Temple Theatre, addresses the ways and means of storytelling, producing an elaborate dance that pays homage to the awesome, but graceful power of the sea and to Melville’s original text. Adinolfi’s interpretation of Moby-Dick’s themes is a physical take on Melville’s tale which weaves the mysteries of the deep and the mysteries of man into a complicated linguistic and psychological web. But what it lacks linguistically, The Whale makes up for with stunning staging that draws parallels between the shapes fashioned by man and by God. However, like Melville’s maniacal Captain Ahab, Adinolfi takes on an impossible task. In excerpting from an intricate novel, Adinolfi cuts key details and the plot points that make a coherent story. For those unfamiliar with the text, the play can be confusing, jumping from monologue to action scene without narrative exposition. For audience members who have read Melville, The Whale, while bursting with energy and imagination, pales by comparison. Still, this exciting journey is worth embarking on—just as men are drawn to the ocean, they are drawn to good storytelling.

To the sound of ominous groans, the opening scene introduces a minor and forgettable character from Moby-Dick, the Sub-Sub Librarian. Melville makes this “poor devil” a meaningless creature by necessity, claiming: “Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong… Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!” (Moby-Dick, xxxix). Whereas Ishmael narrates the novel, Adinolfi uses the Sub-Sub as his narrator, giving greater emphasis to the structural frame of a story within a story, but losing Melville’s characterization.

As in Melville, the Sub-Sub is there to contextualize the mythical significance of the Whale in social and literary history; the creature has captured man’s imagination for centuries, but is still mysterious. For this reason, he is the ideal subject for a story. Adinolfi’s Sub-Sub fantasizes about whaling voyages, bringing the drama of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of a giant and valuable sperm whale to vivid light with enthusiastic recreations. While the distinctions between the various characters in this drama are unclear, the rough transitions are smoothed over by Adinolfi’s child-like energy.

With equal fervor, Adinolfi stages the battles between predator and prey, in ever-changing relationship to each other, by morphing into both sailor and whale. To evoke the shape of the beast, he turns his back to the audience, flexing his broad back and twisting his legs into a fluke. His transformation demonstrates that storytelling is about more than words. All of his characters are bathed in ominous lighting (by Tyler Micoleau), and their speech is echoed with a portentous score (by David Pinkard). The set and sounds demonstrate the intoxicating but terrifying beauty of the sea.

The most stunning aspect of The Whale is its staging. Adinolfi, his crew and director Renee Philippi transform the stage into the limitless sea, showing scale through the use of model boats. As Adinolfi morphs into various characters, blocks of wood onstage take on different meaning: they are boat prows, library shelves, a pulpit and pews, and perhaps coffins. Adinofli also creates a boat skeleton from strips of wood, which is later shrouded in a white sheet to become the elusive Leviathan. The effect is lovely and eerie. The Whale is ghost-like, but the sheet ripples with the natural beauty of fins underwater. Compared to the other props, the white whale is enormous, and the projections of Adinolfi’s shadow onto a screen behind seem ridiculous.

The climactic meeting of Ahab and Moby-Dick shows Adinolfi at his feverish best. The story line is at its clearest, the metaphors too. Bathed in a red light, wrapped in the tangled ropes from his own ship, Ahab goes down spectacularly. Yet, as life rises from the Pequod’s wreck, the Sub-Sub Librarian re-emerges. The Whale has won the epic struggle, but the narrator retains control of the tale.

Adinolfi’s interpretation is powerful due to the performer's ability to go beyond words and to experiment with physical formations that demonstrate the profound shared relationships between all beasts. When the Sub-Sub Librarian sketches a whale skeleton on his arm, he is playing with this connection, just as Melville, in his introductory material, uses quotations to emphasize the whale’s influence. Though maybe not the letter, the spirit of Melville is very much alive in this staging, which likewise pays respect to its subject with a vibrant telling.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post