AVAST! The deck of the Pequod in Moby Dick: Then and Now.
Herman Melville's epic and innovative novel Moby-Dick, the linchpin of 19th- and 20th-century American literature, is quite the ambitious model for imitation. Mixed Magic Theatre has taken on the task, hitting the high points of the venerable narrative while a contemporary parallel story of urban obsession trots alongside.
First staged in 2007, Moby Dick: Then and Now, written and directed by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, continues through March 31.
Unavoidably, Melville's graceful prose and engaging scenes of dramatic confrontation stand in stark contrast to the sometimes vivid but frequently static scenes that often march in place. But this production certainly is a worthy effort as it strives to make such a link significant, however strained the comparison might be.
The stories are divided into that of the Old World Crew, as they are billed, 12 actors in 19 roles, and the New World Crew of five young people in a street gang and one hanger-on, played by Central Falls High School students, mostly. Two characters appear in both stories: Fedallah (Yakim Parker), a sinister stowaway on the ship, incidental in the modern story; and Pip (Daniel Kennedy), a cabin boy demented by a terrifying escape from drowning, gently protected by Captain Ahab (Jim Brown in most performances, Tom Hurdle the night I attended).
The idea of having a modern-day street "crew" correspond to the Pequod ship crew is clever, but expanding beyond that is hard to make work very well. Matching Ahab's obsession with the white whale is that of gang leader Alba (Cristel Benitez), who is seeking what she calls "White Thing." We can accept that this is cocaine, even though she wouldn't be thinking of crack by such a term. But that focus is muddied, which is not good if we're talking about an obsession, by Alba saying that White Thing can be a person or any other object of desire.
The street crew is clearly motivated. Que (Bryce A. Johnson), Alba's second-in-command, says that he specializes in "urban pharmaceuticals" so he doesn't have to flip burgers. One of the others says: "We stack our paper on our terms, in our time." Things run smoothly unless somebody stops being a team player, such as when Pip starts selling on his own, to slight consequences since Alba is more concerned about protecting him from their harsh world.
For an urban gang, the New World Crew has oddly little to do. There is a recurring metaphor that they help out with, sitting around as passengers in a train on the way to "the heart of the city." Occasionally they are given advice by the Ticket Taker (Rudy Cabrera). Now and then one of the other passengers proves interesting, or at least talkative, such as a preening, materialistic Soccer Mom (Jeannie Carson) and a furtive Teen Idol (Kennedy), a rap star escaping from his fans. The Pip in this world is smart, giving an enthusiastically informative monologue about cetology to Alba.
While a young woman warns passengers on the train of urban danger, Ishmael (Peter Hoey) and Queequeg (Alexi Almante) are at the dock being warned against venturing onto the Pequod. The contrast is more than between colorful 19th-century language and flat contemporary conversation, it's also in the difference between the predicted dangers, though describing a city as one fraught crime scene could have had us biting our nails.