Review: Theatre in the Dark Creates Audio Theater Version of Melville’s Great White Whale

Top, Robinson J. Cyprian, Corey Bradberry. Below, Elizabeth McCoy, Mack Gordon.

It begins with the familiar refrain, arguably the three most famous words in American literature. “Call me Ishmael.”

But the voice of this Ishmael is different. The voice is unmistakably female as actress Elizabeth McCoy begins the haunting tale of Captain Ahab and his mad quest for the Great White Whale in Theatre in the Dark’s live 90-minute online audio theater adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. In addition to McCoy, Moby Dick stars Robinson J. Cyprian as Captain Ahab and Mack Gordon as Starbuck. Adapted and directed by Corey Bradberry, it also features original music, recorded sounds, and live Foley effects by Nick Montopoli. The cast and crew are located in Chicago, Vancouver, and New Orleans.

As with their previous productions, the Chicago-based company is inspired by the golden age of radio but presents their programs with a 21st century technological panache.

It’s no easy feat to adapt a dense, 500+-page novel into a streamlined, 90-minute audio play but adapter and director Bradberry has managed to boil it down to its essence, finding a nice rhythm with each of the cast members even though they are separated by geographical distance.

McCoy, Cyprian and Gordon. Images courtesy Theatre in the Dark.

Bradberry’s script features highlights from the novel as the three-member cast takes on multiple roles as international members of the doomed Pequod (McCoy not only plays Ishmael but also the young cabin boy, Pip, for example). Indeed, the crew of the Pequod is a world unto itself, intended by Melville to be a microcosm of society at large.

There are numerous subtle touches throughout the broadcast. Scenes are announced as they might appear in a screenplay (“Aboard the Pequod deck. Christmas morning.”) The music is handled particularly well, including the inclusion of the traditional British naval song “Spanish Ladies.” Sermons are sung at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel and the names of the sailors who were lost at sea are announced, which is another way in which the production adds a personal and prophetic facet to the story. But you’ll have to “arrive” early if you want to hear Father Mapple’s famous sermon on Jonah and the whale (broadcast during the preview before the actual show begins).

Although hearing a female voice as Ishmael initially is a bit of a jolt and it might take a few minutes to get accustomed to, McCoy sounds, at turns, naïve and hardened as the circumstances dictate, the urgency in her voice rising with the action. With his thunderous and magnificent voice, Cyprian is appropriately authoritative as the Lear-like Ahab. Although Gordon’s Chief Mate Starbuck initially comes off as a bit flat, and lacking personality, Gordon more than makes up for it with his portrayal as the Second Mate Stubb using a warm and earthy Irish accent.

The first glimpse of Ahab is always a dramatic moment. Here the music turns somber as we hear the sound of Ahab’s peg leg as he paces back and forth on the deck above the crew. The famous chapter on the whiteness of the whale is referenced and during the intermission quotes from the novel’s extracts appear on the screen, including Genesis (“And God created whales.”), Jonah, Isaiah, Hamlet, and a brief excerpt from the “Narrative of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket…”, which refers to the ramming and sinking of the Essex by a sperm whale in 1819 and which inspired Melville’s tale.

The reviewer’s battered copy of the Signet edition of Moby Dick.

“I am madness maddened,” Ahab admits at one point. At first skeptical, the crew takes on the zeal of their captain’s maniacal quest. “A sharp eye for Moby Dick!” they cry out in frenzied unison. On the second day of the climactic chase to find the Great White Whale, Ishmael himself confesses that, “We were one body. Not thirty” and it is at that moment when Melville’s attack on mob mentality and group thinking is at his most critical. After the frenzy, and terror, of the chase––buoyed by rousing music––the production concludes with a mournful and melancholy theme. As Ishmael says, “The drama’s done.”

The cast does their collective best to bring out the poetry of Melville’s sometimes heavy, but beautiful, text. And Montipoli’s enchanting score adds a bit of tenderness to the production. Listeners can close their eyes and enjoy Moby Dick as the exhilarating tale that it is—and find pleasure in its colorful, Shakespearean characters––and, if they so wish, appreciate it on a deeper level. For Melville’s profound tale of chance, fate, destiny, and free will is just as relevant today as it was when it was written.

For those who want to get into the maritime spirit of the evening before the show begins, Theatre in the Dark recommends you imbibe the red wine and dark rum-based “The Serpent’s Snapping Eye” grog. A recipe is included on their website.

Moby Dick runs through April 10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, and Wednesday, April 7, at 10pm (all times are Central). Tickets are pay-whmat-you-can ($20-30 recommended). Phone for information only at 312-285-0314.

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June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.