Call me Ishmael."
Those are the words that launch the titanic American novel, "Moby Dick," and also christen the first scene of a world-premiere adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 epic, beginning previews Sept. 4 at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.
Eric Simonson, who penned (with Jeffrey Hatcher) and staged Milwaukee Rep's Work Song, returns as playwright and director to tell the tale of Capt. Ahab, Queequeg, Ishmael and the others of the good ship Pequod who go in search of the titular white whale. Official opening after three days of previews at the Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse Theater is Sept. 6. Performances continue to Oct. 6.
The story offers psychological and metaphysical tension and a "brutally honest" picture of the life of a whaler and his daily struggle for survival, according to production notes. The yarn of the 19th-century whaling industry ends with a climactic chase at sea, with obsessive Ahab within reach of his albino quarry.
Like Simonson's Work Song, a unique portrait of architect Frank Lloyd Wright from 2000-2001, Moby Dick was developed over three years in periodic workshops using The Rep's resident acting company. Simonson's Rep credits include Anna Christie, and the direction and co-authorship of Work Song, which had later life in a co-production by Arizona Theatre Company and Missouri Repertory Theatre. His staging of The Song of Jacob Zulu, originally produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre, ran on Broadway and earned six Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Director. He was Academy Award nominated for the film, "On Tiptoe," which he directed.
The cast of Moby Dick includes Rep acting company members Lee E. Ernst (Starbuck), Laura Gordon (Mary), and Torrey Hanson (Captain Bildad/ Flask). Other cast members include Marsha Stephanie Blake (Pip/ Ensemble), Leon Addison Brown (Queequeg), Sean Dougherty (Captain Peleg/ Stubb), Charlie Kimball (Ishmael), M. Martin Mapoma (Daggoo/ Ensemble), Joseph Melendez (Elijah/ Tashtego), Steve Pickering (Captain Ahab), Peter Silbert (Father Mapple/ Carpenter), Rodney R. To (Labrador/ Ensemble), and Scott Wakefield (Peter Coffin/ Captain Gardiner/ English Captain). Intern Jacques Roy will play Olsson and serve as an ensemble member. Other interns in the ensemble are Josh Atkins, Peter Case, Rob Howard, Joe Morris, and Hunter Stiebel.
Pickering plays the monomaniacal, one-legged Ahab. Moby Dick marks Pickering's debut with Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Pickering told Playbill On-Line he worked with a prosthetics specialist to create the illusion of a right peg leg for Ahab. For the two one-hour acts of Moby Dick Pickering's lower right leg is strapped behind him to create the mythic character, whose extremity was chomped off by the white sperm whale.
"You have to be very focused when it's on," Pickering said of the false leg. "It's stretching, it's pulling and there's a modicum of pain when you have it in. It takes a good amount of concentration."
In discussions about the show, the cast explored the idea of Ahab's obsession and obsession in general, and how it's part of the American character: "The idea of the obsessive journey is very much an American trait," Pickering said. "Americans have a tendency that once they have that idea, nothing is going to stop them until they achieve it, whether it's going West or Henry Ford or Rockefeller — at the expense of everyone else."
Pickering said audiences can expect an American romp, with action and humor and thrills. "Too often we see it as this stuffy thing that has to be read or analyzed," Pickering said. "I think it's been in the province of the academics too long."
He called director-adapter Simonson's version "muscular."
"We want the audience to imagine all these things," Pickering explained. "It's very active theatre, they've done an outstanding job of making the boat chases and the whale chases a theatrical event — and there's not a boat to be seen. We have to work long and hard to get up to that point; that's a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
Pickering has appeared in 26 productions at the Goodman Theatre since 1985, including Robert Falls' Tony Award-winning production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in its Chicago production, on Broadway and in the taping for Showtime. He recently appeared in Chicago Shakespeare's production of Richard II. He was for several years artistic director of Evanston's Next Theatre. He and Simonson worked on a Next production of Coriolanus several years ago.
The design and production team for Moby Dick includes Kent Dorsey (set), Kärin Kopischke (costumes), Nancy Schertler (lighting), Barry Funderburg (sound), Mark Corkins (movement coach), Lee E. Ernst (movement and fight director), Randall Swiggum (music director), Scott Wakefield (music captain), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Paul Kosidowski (dramaturg), John Morrison (assistant director), Judy Berdan (stage manager) and Heather Hilbert (assistant stage manager).
Tickets range $5-$45. The Rep is at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee, WI. For information, call (414) 224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.
— By Kenneth Jones