Having opened its 1999 season with the ersatz, if clever, Victorian melodrama “The Crucifer of Blood,” the Berkshire Theater Festival has followed it with more of the same, Orson Welles’ overly ripe adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.” “Moby Dick — Rehearsed” did not prove successful in London in 1955, with Welles as Captain Ahab, nor on Broadway in 1962, with Rod Steiger. This time around, the production fails again — not least because it lacks an actor with the rich vocal equipment and commanding presence needed for Ahab.
Melville suffused his novel with sometimes overly eloquent poetry that does not translate well to the stage. The text too often sounds unwieldy in the mouths of the BTF’s hard-working cast.
Welles’ conceit finds a troupe of touring Victorian Shakespeareans — who are rehearsing “King Lear” — switch over to a “dress rehearsal” of an adaptation of “Moby Dick” by the Young Actor (Tom Story) who later plays Ishmael (the production’s opening line is, indeed, “Call me Ishmael”).
As the rehearsal continues, it quickly becomes more than a mere read-through on set designer Rob Odorisio’s detailed set, complete with swaying catwalk, ropes, ladders and trunks. The highly physical staging (well captained by director Eric Hill) makes good use of everything on hand to conjure up Nantucket , the whaling vessel Pequod and the vast ocean.
The period costumes by Murell Horton, Dan Kotlowitz’s often watery lighting and Scott Killian’s evocative music (which includes hymns and sea chanteys sung to the accompaniment of a harmonium) add to the atmosphere.
However, as the Actor Manager, the preacher Father Mapple and Ahab, David Purdham is way out of his depth, vocally and otherwise. He doesn’t make much of an impression, nor does Casey Biggs’ Serious Actor as Starbuck. Story’s Young Actor as Ishmael is OK but without really bringing enough flavor to the character.
Todd Anthony-Jackson, as a Cynical Actor, Elijah, Carpenter and Daggoo, provides the most colorful performance, though sometimes overdone.
The entire cast strives mightily, continually swaying with the movement of the sea, but to little avail. It’s not until the climactic hunting down of the (never seen) great white whale that the production creates any real drama, and by then, it’s too late. The wordy adaptation is largely at fault, though it’s highly questionable whether a successful stage version of “Moby Dick” is possible.