As countless high school students will testify, it's a daunting task to finish Moby Dick, Herman Melville's 1851 novel about a bad-ass cetacean and an unsuccessful fishing trip. The book is massive; the text is dense. And the story—which at first seems to be a simple enough battle between man and nature—is actually a complex meditation on the motivations that lie beneath individual and collective madness. It helps to have an interest in whaling.
All of these factors would make a pretty convincing argument against adapting the book to the stage. But director Jon Ferguson, perhaps having been touched by a little madness himself, will premiere Or the White Whale at the Southern Theater this weekend with his new ensemble, Civic Stage. In a recent telephone interview, Ferguson says he relishes the challenge, even if it could "beat" him—or swallow him whole.
This isn't the first time Ferguson has tackled Moby Dick. In 1997 he produced, co-directed, and acted in a production that was awarded a Sunday Times Ensemble Award in Great Britain. He started thinking about taking another crack at it after the success of Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, his 2005 Fringe Festival hit created in collaboration with Live Action Set. He soon found a kindred spirit in writer John Heimbuch, who adapted Melville's almost "Shakespearean" text for the new production.
Next, Ferguson pulled together a cast of 10 male performers, including Matt Sciple in the role of Captain Ahab. And with the help of ropes, pulleys, planks, barrels, poles, and their bodies, this crew has set about cleverly recreating a life at sea within the confines of a theater space.
Or the White Whale isn't all existential doom and gloom. Ferguson is adamant that his cast find the humor in Melville's lofty language and the imagined seagoing scenarios. "The piece is really lively," he says. "It's even cartoony at times. These are great character actors and I want people to laugh." It is, after all, he adds, "a big yarn, a big, old ridiculous story."
But for Ferguson, what is most interesting "is how one man can convince others to go along with this. Ahab is a great speaker and leader, and at one time a great captain. He dies going after the whale and everyone follows him. There's a mob mentality, or perhaps they think they're all fated to end up the same way."
Perhaps, he continues, it's because they all want to feel alive, no matter how dangerous the mission. Why else would they set off to sea for years at a time, he wonders? He continues, "It was brutal, dark, and there wasn't much money."
Sounds a little like working in theater.