comScore

'Ishmael,' the Jungle's take on 'Moby Dick,' is too literal

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

This season, Minneapolis theatergoers have had not one but two opportunities to take to sea with the colorful crew of the Pequod. Last fall, Theatre Coup d’Etat premiered a boisterous and physical Moby Dick that took surprising but welcome liberties with the 1851 novel’s characters. Now the Jungle Theater is staging Ishmael, a much more traditional and intimate telling that also takes risks—but the wrong kind.

Ishmael

Jungle Theater
$35-$45

Writer-director Leo Geter has adapted Herman Melville’s text into a 90-minute play performed by Jack Weston along with three musicians who also function as extras. Fiddler Nate Sipe and banjo player Kevin Kniebel, who also handles lead vocals on a handful of songs, are members of the Americana band Pert Near Sandstone. They’re accompanied by Jim Parker, a multi-instrumentalist whose clogging skills do not go to waste.

The story is framed as the reminisces of a middle-aged Ishmael. As he speaks, we flash back to the days of his seafaring youth.

The transformations of setting are effected with just a few benches, some simple props, and a traveling bag containing a large white sheet that goes on its own epic journey, turning into a bed cover and then a sail before being magically whisked away. Sarah Bahr’s understated set is complemented by Sean Healey’s detailed and precisely deployed sound design.

The central notes of Geter’s telling are nostalgia and sorrow. We linger long over the final days of Captain Ahab, his life behind him and his purpose boiled down to the pursuit of a single iconic symbol. The play becomes essentially a dramatic reading, the campfire vibe heightened when lighting designer Bill Healey isolates Weston in a single footlight.

The intimate Jungle is the perfect venue for this kind of show, and there’s a reason Moby Dick has retained a prominent place in the American imagination. The story is bound to exert a certain spell if told competently—as it is by Weston, although the elegiac mood could use a little more variation.

It’s all compromised, though, by Geter’s failure to sufficiently reckon with the distinction between a book, which exists as a static artifact of a certain place and time, and a live play. Notably, Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, a central element of the story, is handled with cringe-worthy fidelity to a character awash in “noble savage” stereotypes.

Weston intones Queequeg’s broken English in a husky tone recalling generations of problematic portrayals. At one point, Ishmael is swabbing the deck and pauses to reflect philosophically, “Who ain’t a slave?” This ignorant question may be consistent with what a callow 19th-century white boy would think, but to roll it out at the beginning of a play performed by a grown man in 2018 reflects a narrowness of perspective that harpoons this misjudged production.

Ishmael
Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through February 4