Twin Cities-based director Jon Ferguson has put his stamp on impressionistic and richly emotive original works that draw upon movement and sound to project non-linear narratives, but he changes course with “Or the White Whale,” John Heimbuch’s adaptation of the novel “Moby Dick” premiering at the Southern Theater. While this ensemble work incorporates music and physicality, it is also true to Herman Melville’s bleak poetry and despairing view of existence, if at times lacking in the source material’s deep complexity.
The show employs a 10-man cast to tackle a variety of roles while running through a fairly straightforward depiction of the book’s events. Ishmael (Tim Cameron) introduces himself with appropriately postmodern sheepishness.
Seafaring action predominates as Erica Zaffarano’s design captures existential extremity on a small budget. The production employs minimal props such as ropes, poles, and planks to simulate whale hunting on a big, empty stage, and a wide, billowing sheet approximates the sea.
Noah Bremer is a standout as Queequeg, a lanky and sober take on the iconic spearman (Bremer sports elaborate facial tattoos that one sincerely hopes are temporary), but the show begins to sag around the middle, precisely at the moment when Melville’s narrative tightened.
Little blame can be placed on Ahab (Matt Sciple). Limping about delivering Ahab’s diatribes against the world, Sciple offers a darkly complicated take on the doomed captain.
Others fail to connect, and there’s a real sense that the tight ensemble feel of the show begins to work against its aims. Cameron is flat and declamatory throughout, with very little of the mordant humor lurking beneath the surface of Melville’s narrator. And while the cast seems to gel, by the end the action has become diffuse.
An exception is Starbuck (John Catron), who challenges Ahab with clarity and passion. The sequence in which Starbuck reminds Ahab of civilian life and all that lies beyond his obsession with slaying the whale, comes across with stark passion, and Sciple and Catron connect with aching humanity.
By the end, though, the cast (minus Sciple) unite in body and voice to portray Moby Dick himself, engulfing Ahab and his ship and leaving Ishmael as the only survivor. The sequence is confusing, though it is partly redeemed by a final song.
The British-born Ferguson has distinguished himself in the Twin Cities as a director who emphasizes and ably captures the unspoken textures of everyday experience. “Moby Dick,” on the other hand, featured an anti-hero who viewed experience as a “mask,” and wanted to lash out and destroy whatever lies behind it. Here Ferguson’s ability to find affection for his characters and their lives runs at least partially aground in the face of Ahab’s still-chilling rejection of what we all presumably hold dear.