This Summer at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga
By LIBBY MOTIKA
Special to Circling the News
Madness comes in subtle variations. Consider the outright “mad” King George III, credited with losing the American colonies and losing his mind; or the Persian king Xerxes, who lashed the sea for damaging his bridge; or one-legged Captain Ahab, who set out on a doomed pursuit to destroy the enigmatic white whale Moby Dick, who had ripped off his leg on a previous voyage.
Or King Lear, whose madness resulted in losing his only daughter, Cordelia, who sincerely loved him by speaking the truth.
With these thoughts in mind, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga is staging “Moby Dick–Rehearsed” by Orson Welles in repertory throughout the summer.
In 1955, Welles elected to frame the story of Moby Dick within an imagined rehearsal of “King Lear.” The rehearsal is not going well, so the Shakespearean acting troupe creates a play about Moby Dick.
The actors on a bare stage improvise the yardarms, sails, masts and deck of a ship hunting the great white whale.
The audience’s imagination provides the ocean, period costumes and the whale.
But the stripped down production serves to focus our attention on Captain Ahab, whose insane quest for vengeance exposes his fierce and myopic hubris. His fanatical mission to crush the beast robs him of all caution, and he becomes the victim of a deep, cunning monomania.
Under the direction of Ellen Geer and choreographed by Dane Oliver, the production skillfully immerses the audience in life aboard ship. Fearful apprehension is relieved by song and dance, while the hunt that ensues when Moby Dick is finally sighted, is exhilarating and heartbreaking.
Contrasting Ahab (Gerald Rivers) is Starbuck (Colin Simon), the first mate, who operates as the voice of reason aboard the ship. When Ahab rants about his desire for revenge, Starbuck counters with “Vengeance on a dumb brute…Madness!”
In the broader sense, when we in our world are asked to accept the reality of a madman, it takes a Starbuck to confront the insanity and expose the violation against the order of nature.
The cast, as usual with the repertory company at the Theatricum Botanicum, is uniformly excellent both in its superb understanding of Melville’s poetic prose and their cohesion as if they were all shipmates.
Perhaps because it was opening night, my advice to actor KiDane´ Kelati, who plays Pip, to tone it down may be unnecessary. Pip, the young African-American boy and lowest-ranking sailor on board, speaks the truth like one of Shakespeare’s fools to Captain Ahab and has many sensible things to say about the doom that Ahab is going toward. For tickets, contact theatricum.com or 310-455-3723