By Michael Aushenker
In 1851, Harper and Brothers published what many consider to be a Great American Novel: Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” On Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m., a multi-media presentation at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St. in Santa Monica, featuring actor Stacy Keach as Ahab, will simultaneously celebrate, comment on, and re-contextualize this classic work loaded with metaphor and symbolism in artsy fashion.
Mellville’s classic is about to get a “West Coast makeover,” said Rebecca Rickman, executive producer of “My Moby Dick” for Library Foundation of Los Angeles. “We’ve relocated it to the West Coast and through the lens of (contemporary California). It really made us think about what makes living in Southern California a different experience from living in other places.”
Part and parcel with this alternate take will be a story perspective told “from the whale’s point of view,” Rickman said. “One of the things that has really struck me (about ‘Moby-Dick’) is that I can’t think of another book in any language except for the Bible where you can fall open on a page and start reading where your eyes fall and have a meaningful experience regarding what comes before or after.”
Considered an American Romantic novel, “Moby-Dick” was part of the mid-19th century’s American Renaissance movement; a period when such works as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” captured the imagination and the intellect of readers. What the Broad presentation sets to prove is that “Moby-Dick,” famously chronicling uber-obsessed peg-legged Captain Ahab’s attempt to exact revenge on the titular white sperm whale who destroyed his ship and mauled his leg, continues to resonate with readers into the 21st century.
“Stacy Keach is going to bring Capt. Ahab to life on the stage,” Rickman said of the actor best known for his longtime role as television’s version of Mickey Spillane’s gumshoe, Mike Hammer, and a star of such movies as “The Long Riders” and “Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke.” Joining Keach onstage will be John Fleck, who has played in a couple of latter-day “Star Trek” television series, “Babylon 5,” and “Waterworld.”
“This is a first and last,” Rickman said of the Oct. 5 extravaganza, which will be directed by David Schweizer. “It’s a one-night-only event. It’s the culmination of a five-week project done in collaboration with Los Angeles Public Library.”
Since late August, 90 diverse programs related to “Moby-Dick” have been staged around the city in various library branches.
“(We have) an astonishing array of people gathering to participate in this,” Rickman said of an eclectic mix of notables including artist Ed Ruscha, comedian Patton Oswald, and Richard Melville Hall, a descendant of Melville better known to the world as techno music icon Moby. “I don’t think there’s another part of the country that would think to bring these people to inhabit the same stage.”
Oswald has appeared at various “Moby-Dick” programs.
“Some of the people followed him from branch to branch,” said Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, chuckling. The Library Foundation head added that he has been touched by “what (the novel) has meant across the communities.”
David Graham Burnett has authored two “Moby-Dick”-inspired works, “Trying Leviathan,” following a 19th-century trial in New York held to determine whether a whale was a fish or a mammal; and “The Sounding of the Whale.”
“The challenge is to do an evening that acknowledges the expertise of the various obsessed readers in the audience,” Rickman said.
Of the Oct. 5 Broad Stage evening, Rickman explained why a possessive was added to the show’s title: “It is, to a very great degree, about people’s very individual responses to ‘Moby-Dick.’ Inside each person who has read the book, there is a different Moby Dick. It’s a completely individualized novel catered to your own experience.”
The culminating “Moby-Dick” event will marry filmed vignettes of people discussing their stream of consciousness experiences with the novel to live musicians and thespian theatrics reciting and quoting passages from Melville’s verse.
Brecher found that the films’ power draws from the various matter-of-fact reactions it evokes from those asked about the book: architect Frank Gehry reportedly keeps it by his bedside the whole time, while Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin never read it, and contradictions such as Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold admitting that he’s eaten whale while his brother, Mark, (until recently) led the conservation group Heal the Bay.
“Everyone has their own version of Ahab in their own lives,” Brecher said, whether it’s an “obsessive boss” or the very act of being too intimidated to finish reading the 500-plus-page novel. “We have board members who say they are half-way there.”
Meanwhile, Brecher noted Melville’s description of New Bedford, New England, as “this incredibly diverse place with architecture you can’t see anywhere else in America,” and he believes this is applicable to Los Angeles itself.
“I love that we’re part of this bigger idea of America,” he said.