One of the perils of an English education is that it leaves gaps. While I and any of my old school friends could discuss Shaw, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf at some length -- and on a more contemporary note, I'd be happy to talk your ear off about Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie -- I've read very little of Steinbeck, Hemingway and quite a few other American heavyweights. Of Herman Melville, I know only "Bartleby, the Scrivener."
When members of Buntport Theater promise that you don't have to have read Moby-Dick in order to enjoy their Moby Dick Unread (in fact, they suggest that you see the production, then impress your friends by pretending you've read the novel), they're telling the truth. I did enjoy the play. Most stage and film adaptations of novels emphasize the story line, streamlining the action and trimming away minor scenes, the author's digressions, sometimes a subplot or two. But the Buntport team announces proudly, "This is Moby-Dick with all the fat." They linger lovingly on Pip's ordeal alone in the vast sea and the arcana of an actual historic London court case on whale fishery that made a careful distinction between a "fast fish" and a "loose fish." The result is a kind of serio-comic glossary, a meditation on Melville's masterwork. It's also as inventive as everything Buntport does, making clever use of space arrangements and objects (a rope ladder, buckets of water suspended from the ceiling) and combining parody and homage.
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As always, the actors create their low-tech special effects with what seems like touching earnestness while their faces and bodies offer ironic comments: Look, we've drawn a large chalk whale on the back wall. Laugh all you want, but notice that it's also resonant with meaning. Perhaps even mythic. Think of the vastness of the sea, the mystery of these huge creatures. Think of Job. Oh, come on, folks -- don't get that serious. It's just a chalk drawing. "We're making do," various members of the cast keep telling us after particularly iffy or unexpected pieces of business. Because the style is so unpretentious, the heavy subject matter seems light and palatable, yet it's never trivialized. Rather than coming between you and Melville's world, the Buntporters -- Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg and Erin Rollman, with Evan Weissman and SamAntha Schmitz working off-stage -- illuminate it. And Edborg's prologue, which uses an aquarium and a wind-up toy whale to give you the entire action of the play, is worth the price of admission on its own.
Moby Dick Unread/Buntport Theater
Presented by Buntport Theater Company through April 28, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com.
But though I had the promised good time, I couldn't help noticing that my friend, Jim, who had studied the book in college, was more deeply mesmerized by the production, and hugely exhilarated afterward. When he talked about what we'd seen on the way home, I realized that he'd found all kinds of echoes and subtleties that I'd only partly glimpsed, and Moby Dick Unread became thicker and richer in my mind. My response to the idea of actually reading Melville's swollen, portentous, 650-page epic has always been quite unequivocal: I would prefer not to. Buntport not only provided a fine evening of theater, but it inspired me to pick up the damn thing and begin. That has to count for quite a lot.