The set up:
We’ve read about the whale, listened to adaptations of him on the radio and even ate popcorn and watched as the giant fishy mammal came to filmic life. But now, thanks to Philip Hays and Horse Head Theatre, we get closer to the story than most could have imagined. And by closer I mean inside the whale himself.
Yup, the ubiquitous immersive environment that’s the latest coolest darling of the theatre world has taken Melville by the dog-eared pages and planted his tale in a 44-foot igloo-looking dome situated inside the Buffalo Bayou Partnership Silos. Not just any igloo-looking dome mind you, this one is full of projection, light and sound effects and is also (blessedly) air conditioned.
But don’t fear dear audience, we are not like Jonah, alone in the belly of our whale. We have Philip along with us. Philip, you ask? He’s not in the book. Well no he isn’t, but then this isn’t a straight ahead telling of the famous story. The Whale; or, Moby Dick, conceived and developed by Philip Hays and written by playwright Timothy N. Evers (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) is a one hour-ish adaptation with Philip playing himself discovering that he, along with the audience has somehow ended up in the tummy of a whale.
Placating the giant aquatic beast from the inside by taking on the personas of Ahab, Starbuck and Ishmael along the way is Philip's role as we sit hoping the show is more food for thought than a case of indigestion.
Things veer to the frustration side of the street upon arrival. We’re told that the doors open at 8 p.m. only to find that that’s certainly not the case. Instead, we’re made to wait in an outside dusty and buggy clearing in 94-degree weather biding our time until it gets dark enough for the show’s projections to have full effect inside the walls and ceiling of the dome. Forty-five borderline cranky minutes later, the sun finally goes down and we are let into the splendidly cool dome where we walk across the hay strewn floor to take our seats on the rustic wooden benches that horseshoe the stage.
And what a stage it is! Any grumblings that may have occurred quickly disappear as we walk into the otherworldly, calm blue and purple lit environment to the accompaniment of ambient whale and water sounds. The set (realized with splendidly elegant digestive ramshackleness by Kevin Holder) consists of the flotsam and jetsam accumulated in the whale’s belly. Fishing nets, suitcases, lanterns and dolls lay about in peptic debris. To navigate among this mess is a maze of wooden, rotting-looking plank catwalks of various heights and lengths. It’s on these runways that the action will take place.
We first meet Philip when he crawls onto the set from the back of the stage, clothes drenched and torn. He’s surprised to see us there having been inside the whale for two days now after being swallowed off a Pirate Party boat outside of Galveston where we was working as a musician for hire. A sarcastic “Welcome to the rest of your fucking life”, is his greeting to us. Yet as he looks all around him at the inner stomach lining of the whale (just one of the many beautifully designed and utilized projections by Clint Allen), Phillip fights defeatism and attempts to cajole the whale into spitting us back out.
Here the audience is employed in several vomitus plans including a group gag and singing along to dirty ditties accompanied by Hays on his ukulele. But none of these things entreat upchuck from the whale who instead violently rolls its stomach and bellows ominously. It isn’t until a paperback copy of Moby Dick falls from the sky (or in this case we assume another part of the whale’s digestive tract) that it becomes clear what the whale (who may or may not be Moby himself; we are never told) wants of Philip. A reading of every sea mammal’s favorite story.
Thankfully, Hays along with writer Evers had the good sense not to take all 135 chapters of the massive story into account. Moving away from the fourth wall-breaking opening scenes of the play (and generally dropping the notion that we are all in this together), Philip enters into more traditional theater making for most of the show by acting out a strikingly condensed version of the novel. As projections simulate the masts of the Pequod and the ocean on which it sails, Ishmael, Starbuck and Ahab all get energetic portrayal by Hays as Philip acts out the story for the whale in hopeful exchange of his release.
It plays like a thoroughly enjoyable Melville highlight reel. It’s a bit odd that Elijah with his dooming prophecy gets so much stage time while Queequeg is relegated to a passing but clever mention in a smartly funny power point presentation on sperm whales halfway thought the traditional storytelling. But really that’s small fish in comparison to Evers ability to honor Melville’s language and intent with such love despite much of the meat of the story being trimmed off with the blubber. Kudos here as well to director Jacey Little for helping Hays wonderfully balance between light interactive comedy and some serious classical story telling all the while making superb use of the visually stimulating set.
It would be colicky to discuss the outcome once the story is finished being told. There will be no theatrical appetites spoiled here. To find out if Philip (and the audience) gets released from their organ prison, you’ll have to see the show yourself. But I will say that in the end I found myself asking what it was all for? What were we supposed to take away besides participating in a well performed, fantastically designed and undoubtedly cool experience?
Truthfully I kept waiting for some epiphany or aha moment that leant some level of gravitas to the whole enterprise and when none came, it was a bit of a letdown. I couldn’t help shake the notion that this was a play with a lot more to say. But then maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s enough to be taken on a wondrous theatrical journey for the sake of the journey itself and not necessarily some writerly punchline forcing us to naval gaze or connect the philosophic dots.
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Or maybe there was a point and I missed it.
Either way, a bravo must be paid to Hays, his creative team and Horse Head Theatre for not only bringing us a new piece of work (something we are sorely lacking in Houston, in my opinion) but for bringing it to us in such a uniquely creative and exciting format. Ideas and work and execution like this tickle all my theatre loving nerve ends and make me hungry for other iterations of out of the black box ideas.
Ahoy theatre makers, the bar’s been set. Take notice.
The Whale; or, Moby-Dick continues through August 15 at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership Silos, 351 N. St. Charles. Purchase tickets online at www.getswallowed.com or at the door. $15 - $35.