UA puts new spin on Moby-Dick

UA puts new spin on Moby-Dick

Lightning crashes over a dark, turbulent sea as the waves roil, and from high above in the crow’s nest there comes a cry of “There she blows!” The large whaling ship is tossed about as its crew members man the longboats to go after the great white whale himself: Moby Dick.

Everyone has heard of the tale of “Moby Dick,” the classic American novel by Herman Melville, but no one has ever held a performance on stage quite like this one. The UA department of theatre and dance has produced an entirely original play based on the novel, written by theatre professor Steve Burch.

“Moby Dick” will run Feb. 21 through 27 at the Marian Gallaway Theatre in Rowand-Johnson Hall. Shows will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for UA faculty/staff and seniors, and $12 for students and are available at the box office of the Gallaway and online at theatre.ua.edu.

“I think what’s going to make it special is that it’s a different way for people to experience the story,” said director Seth Panitch, who began collaborating on this show with writer Steve Burch about three years ago. “The book was always meant to be a visceral experience for the reader, and I think this company has done a great job taking all those elements and creating the full experience for an audience.”

But it hasn’t been easy, Panitch said. Trying to define what is going on in the script onstage has been the biggest challenge of the show. The solution is using dancers, original music, combat and hundreds of yards of fabric to represent the wind, rain, ocean and the whale.

“The script says throw a harpoon…Well, there’s no way we can actually do that,” Panitch said. So, they use dancers representing the elements to carry the harpoons across the stage as it speeds through the air. “We’ve tried to keep it as open-ended as possible to allow the audience to interpret it. Some of Melville’s text is very complicated, so it might help the audience to see it all played out.”

In addition to choreography, the play features live, original music from the Nozomi Daiko Japanese drum corps and violinist Nib McKinney. It has been a true collaborative effort between the musicians and the dancers to make this piece come together, said Marianne McConnell, a junior majoring in musical theatre who is one of the show’s dance captains.

“Because this is so new, there’s nothing to base it off except what’s on the script and in our minds,” McConnell said. “We started rehearsing without the drums and they watched, and came up with their music based on our choreography. I’m really excited about the effects we bring to the show because it feeds the emotion of the audience. There are even moments when we become people’s nightmares.”

Second-year master’s acting student Amy Handra plays Starbuck, first mate to Captain Ahab, and read the novel for the first time over Christmas break to prepare for her performance.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I ended up enjoying it much more than I thought I would,” Handra said. “Obviously when you’re taking an American classic and adapting it, it’s a daunting process. I think the audience’s expectations will—not to be cliché—be blown out of the water.”

The story is told from the memory of Ishmael, who takes the journey back through time as he enlists on the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s whaling ship, and takes a death-defying adventure he never expected.

“The fact that this is the story of someone our age, maybe a little older, just tossing everything away to find a new home, is something I think will appeal to our student audience,” said David Bolus, a senior majoring in theatre who plays the part of Ishmael. “It’s been one of the most phenomenal experiences I’ve had on stage.”

But it’s been a challenge, Bolus said, taking a character people have read for 150 years and bringing him to life. During his preparations for the show he has been under physical and emotional pressure to put on a spectacular performance.

“I’m a little afraid of heights,” he said, “and the crow’s nest is high enough so I’m a little bit nervous. And learning how to row realistically has been a challenge. It’s things like that, those little details, that really make the show.”

“It’s terrifying, it’s massive, it’s fraught with peril,” Panitch said. “Everyone feels like they are in the story—you start to feel like Ahab, and that’s what makes it great.”

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