I went into Moby Dick in the Dark (adapted and directed by Cory Bradberry) mostly oblivious, knowing little about the plot or characters of Moby Dick other than what I’ve absorbed through cultural osmosis. I was very excited, as I’d edited two previous reviews we published about Theatre in the Dark productions — I was intrigued by the company’s approach to all-audio, live Zoom theatre, and wanted to see what the hype was about. I logged into the Zoom waiting room and, according to the company’s recommendation, made myself a hot drink and found a comfortable, dark corner to sit in.
There is something very primal and exciting about a live audio-only classical tale of risk and adventure — and without all the flair of in-person theatre, a stripped-down, barebones approach to a famously overhyped text is an enormously clever idea. The sound design and original music from Nick Montopoli do a lovely job of setting the mood, with some minimalist violins and drums, the evocative and harsh crashing of ocean waves, the textured creaking of wooden ship planks, and the shrieking of seagulls. The adaptation from Cory Bradberry aptly and succinctly condenses the story into something listenable. In its original iteration, the book (I’m told) contains many long, meandering explanations that are only tangentially related to the plot — and here, they are either cut entirely or reduced to a few essential sentences. At only 90 minutes, I can only assume this is a tight adaptation of Herman Melville’s gargantuan classic.
However, even with all the excess whale fat trimmed away, Moby Dick in the Dark still struggled to hold my attention over its short runtime – and despite the care woven into its storytelling, I simply didn’t connect with it. Admittedly, this could be on my end, seeing as I often find audio-only entertainment very difficult to process when I’m sitting still. This is always a disappointing turn of events for a reviewer, as your emotional reaction to the art has to form the bedrock of your analysis of it — and if you don’t have that emotional reaction, all you’re left with is the nuts and bolts of the thing. But alas, we’re here, and we must plunge ahead regardless.
The three-person cast does an admirable job handling the dense language, but I do wish they had treated the text with a little less reverence. The first line of Moby Dick, for instance, is “Call me Ishmael.” But rather than playing the intention of the line (i. e., I’m introducing myself, but I won’t tell you my true name because I’m ashamed of what happened here), it is delivered with an air of formality and poise, accentuating the line’s literary significance over its importance to the story. Even when there was no famous, oft-quoted line in a scene, it often felt as though the actors were playing tone and genre, rather than action or intent. In addition, the three actors don’t do a great deal to differentiate their voices between the vast number of sailors they portray, so I often couldn’t tell who was supposed to be talking, which in turn made it difficult to keep track of personalities and motivations. A larger cast might have suited this story better, so as to give us a better sense of the diverse crew of the Pequod, and the growing rift of distrust between Ahab and his sailors.
As for the themes of the show, I guess I simply didn’t find any of them particularly salient? Moby Dick is perhaps the most overanalyzed book in history, so I won’t delve too deep into it. But the story, as you know, is about a man’s blinding obsession with a whale. The whale, of course, is a metaphor. What’s it a metaphor for? Anything, really: the hubris of humanity, the indifference of nature, our culture’s weird obsession with defeating or overcoming nature — whatever (forgive me) floats your boat.
The problem isn’t necessarily that none of Moby Dick’s themes are relevant to our current world; one could very easily make the case that they are more relevant than ever. The problem is that the production did not convince me they’re relevant. Could people in 2021 use a meaningful story reminding them to keep their hubris in check? Absolutely! But how do we get there? How exactly do you drive it home in an emotionally resonant way? This is an important question for a theatre company that has mostly chosen to adapt classic novels from a white and “western” literary canon, whose applicability to our modern lives might not always be clear on the surface. One needs to examine not only what relevance the story has, but also how you can clearly and effectively drive that relevance home.
Regardless, I am still extremely excited to see what comes next for Theatre in the Dark. The way they’ve completely and totally embraced audio drama is uniquely suited to this pandemic in a way that much Zoom theatre is not — and we need to invest in theatre that attempts to completely reimagine what performance can be.
Elizabeth McCoy (Ishmael and others)
Robinson J. Cyprian (Captain Ahab and others)
Mack Gordon (Starbuck, Stubb, and others)
Corey Bradberry (Adapter, Director, Stage Manager/Sound Engineer)
Nick Montopoli (Original Music)
Mack Gordon (Soundscape Design)