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Horse Head Theatre Co’s Moby Dick is a Whale of Tale

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If you’re like most people, your association with Moby Dick is limited to some high school or college lit class, and it brings to mind an epic, obsessive quest to hunt down a whale. You might have some serious flashbacks of wrestling with hundreds and hundreds of pages as Captain Ahab and his crew on the Pequod chart the seas hunting whales.

“It’s the kind of story people feel like they’re kind of supposed to read,” says Phillip Hays, who’s made Moby Dick something of a lifetime obsession of his own and has now wrestled the book into a one-man show entitled The Whale; or, Moby-Dick for Horse Head Theatre Co. “But I think it’s a much more interesting story than what people usually think. And in this version of it, we poke a little fun at it, even play with how serious it is.”

The result is an adaptation that runs about an hour, where Hays plays a character named Phillip (not a character original to the book) who discovers he’s in the belly of a whale. He also discovers there’s an audience in there with him – and sets about trying to figure out how that happened. Along the way, he takes on the personas of Ahab, Elijah, Ishmael and others, telling a story that’s just as much about humanity and our quest to be better selves as it is the stalking of a whale.

“Doing a one-man Moby Dick is unique,” says Jacey Little, Horse Head’s producer, who says the production’s whirlwind start-to-finish schedule (from conception to writing to grant funding to opening took all of about five months) has resulted in something Houston audiences have likely never experienced before. “And instead of trying to find a space to do this, we created one. We’ve always tried to create space in immersive environments.”

The show takes place under a newly constructed, 44-foot-by22-foot, great, white dome, where light and video projections add to the environment. Timothy N. Evers (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) wrote the play based on Hays’ conceptions; Horse Head founder and seasoned set designer Kevin Holden, as well as nationally acclaimed projection designer and theater artist Clint Allen, along with Little, are part of the team helming the production. They’re joined by one of Houston’s rising visual artists, Troy Stanley, who has produced three 2014 public art installations with the Houston Arts Alliance and is represented by the Barbara Davis gallery.

“Because I like the book so much, I was in a place where I was constantly killing my darlings,’ says Hays, referring to the phrase writers use about stripping things they love from a script or book. “We threw a lot of ideas against the wall, but we kept coming back to the book and what it means.”

Hays realizes Melville’s text wanders from the main action into the history and techniques of whaling, sometimes pondering prose that readers made of less stern stuff can find challenging.

“So, we put in this Interlude, where we condense a lot of that material into this little lecture. There are a lot of places in the book’s plot where Melville wanders off on a tangent, so I wanted to capture that,” says Hays.

What Horse Head was really, after, though, was helping the audience feel like they are part of the action, not just casual observers. The group partnered with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to place the show between the city skyline and bayou, a short distance from Minute Maid Park and the Original Ninfa’s.

“There’s a little bit of an improvised bit in it, where Phillip interacts with the audience,” says Little. “And then there’s the physical setting. It’s just outside of downtown, so it feels a little isolated, like the ocean might, but it’s still part of the East End. And you walk along the bayou and come up a hill and you see downtown and this big dome we’ve made. I think people will be much more aware of the city, as well as our setting.”

“Horse Head's calling card has always been to explode the ideas of theatrical space and how a play works into something new and innovative,” says Hays. “Which is a lot like what Melville does to the narrative form. I think this is a great marriage of material and method.” 

The Whale; or, Moby-Dick runs July 29 through August 15 at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership Silos, 351 N. St. Charles; all shows begin at 8 p.m.

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