Irish theater brings one-man ‘Moby-Dick'

Thursday October 4, 2012

It's been called the great American novel by some and critiqued by others, and many high school students have skimmed its 600 pages.

Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" has earned obsessive study for the past 161 years. The work has deep ties to the Berkshires -- Melville wrote it while at Arrow head, his Pittsfield home. His work has inspired the city's "Call Me Melville" festival, which concludes this week with a very different take on the nautical epic.

The Gare St. Lazare Players, an Irish theater company, will present the tale of the ill-fated Pequod and its crew in an intimate way, stripped bare of Melville's detailed descriptions of the sea.

Their production of "Moby-Dick," re-envisioned as a two-hour, one-man show starring actor Conor Lovett, opens tonight at Massachusetts Col lege of Liberal Arts at 8 p.m. as part of the "MCLA Presents!" performance series, and it will close "Call Me Melville" Friday night in Pittsfield.

Using Ishmael, the novel's narrator, as its anchor, the production sets one actor, with musical accompaniment, on a stage cloaked mostly in black.

Conor is an experienced interpreter of Beckett works. Despite vast differences, Mel ville and Beckett have similarities, Conor wrote in an email, while wrapping up a tour through the United Kingdom. The two writers share the same "themes of challenging the gods and questioning one's own ambitions in relation to those of the society," he wrote.

"There is just something so wondrous in seeing an extraordinarily gifted actor perform great writing -- to see that come together in an intimate way is just breathtaking," said Jonathan Secor, director of special programs at MCLA, who has brought the production to the Berkshires.

The Gare St. Lazare Players -- run by Conor and his wife, Judy Hagerty Lovett, who directs the company's productions -- first came to Secor's attention five years ago, when he caught their rendition of Samuel Beckett's "The End" at the Public Theater in New York. Attending the performance with MCLA students, Secor said he was floored by the power of seeing one man alone on a stage.

Following that performance, Secor invited the company to MCLA, and after a positive reception the group returned a second time to bring Beckett to North Adams.

Secor asked the Lovetts to stage "Moby-Dick" sight unseen, feeling the show would naturally lend itself to a collaboration with "Call Me Melville."

Secor then brought the company to the attention of Megan Whilden, director of cultural development for the city of Pittsfield, and soon, "Moby- Dick" was on the schedule to close the celebration of all things Melville.

"I think it's wonderful to end with such an intense and intelligent distillation of the book that we've all been reading," Whil den said.

Conor and Judy read the book many times while adapting Melville's work for the stage. Conor wrote that he and Judy spent five weeks immersed in the novel. He latched onto Ishmael, writing that the character is "still changing" for him from performance to performance.

For Judy, the process of adapting the iconic work was a challenge.

"It was very hard at first, and it took us a lot of time," she said in a Skype interview from the couple's home in France.

This specific production was first staged in Ireland in 2009, and Judy said the play has naturally evolved from its first staging to now.

The same could be said for the company itself. It started modestly in the early '90s when the couple was living in Chi cago. They did not begin with a focus on one-man shows, though in recent years their Beckett adaptations have received praise, and the couple now have plans for a new production of "Waiting for Godot" with a cast of five actors.

Judy said one of the most intense aspects of staging "Moby-Dick" in the Berkshires is to be where Melville drew his inspiration.

"It's thrilling," she said. "You can literally delve right in the heart of the piece whenever you go to any work's source."


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