Apr 8, 2016
I arrive in the middle of Dave Malloy’s third-to-last rehearsal in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. Eight shoeless performers flip through new scripts, lean over each other to point out lines, pass pens and pages back and forth. “Gelsey, can you take on Ishmael?” Malloy asks.
Today’s rehearsal is the first with director Rachel Chavkin, and the day’s agenda is described as “a sharing of what everyone’s learned.” The read-through is freewheeling and rough and energized. The text is familiar. “I’m just a big literature buff,” says Malloy when asked about his continued interest in adapting the canon. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, opening on Broadway in the fall, is based on Book 8 of War & Peace, and Malloy’s resume also includes adaptations of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Shubert, and The Bible. “Especially giant epic novels I have a real affinity for. I love that amazing sense of reading something that was written two or three hundred years ago and thinking, ‘that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ Seeing how humanity doesn’t change that much. I am looking at these classics through a very contemporary lens with the hope of rescuing them from their bad reputations.” At first listen, the script is dense and Melville-forward, but seems to resist heaviness by not dwelling on the finer narrative points: “My challenge is to adapt the novel on its own terms rather than extracting story. The novel is a very bizarre beast of a thing; it has all of these tangents and digressions, a bunch of different forms, and I wanted to embrace all of that.”
Malloy plays one-handed piano, someone shakes a tambourine, electropop backtracks are started and stopped, everyone dances in their chairs. The lone upright bass sounds more like a whale than I expect it to; more eerie than on-the-nose. The group seems amused by the grandeur of the language and the energy of the music. “Dance like whirling dervishes, dance like sun-kissed Brazilians,” they sing, alongside offhand contemporary references (“She works for a thinktank,” something about Capri Sun). Tahiti, Nantucket, India, Africa, and Russia are mentioned; size and scale and scope are subjects in themselves and are referred to directly: “the ocean is so vast and history is endless.” The script does not apologize for its largeness.
Whiteness as a condition or idea seems to function as a vein from Melville’s original document to Malloy’s contemporary priorities. “One of the beautiful things about Moby Dick is that Melville paints the whaleship as this utopian democracy where all of the communities and people of earth have bonded together. He talks a lot about where everyone comes from; it’s a diverse world. That said, it is 1851 so there is of course some problematic language, all the main characters are white, only the harpooners are people of color. The book itself contains some pretty interesting stuff about race; Ahab is white and has a weird relationship with Pip, a young man of color, and there is an amazing chapter called The Whiteness of The Whale which is about how whiteness is terrifying. We have lots of actors of color and we have women playing Ahab and the three mates. What would a diverse all-inclusive whaleship look like today? All of that is bubbling up in a really exciting way.”
Malloy is building a “large-form communal music theater event” as opposed to an opera, but the generic boundary is inconsequential: “My intention is to have the majority happen as song. I’m really drawn to the sung-through form; the few things that are spoken can resonate all the more. Spoken text is good for language that we want to really pop and for cumbersome exposition. Sometimes we just need people to say the lines so we can get to the song.” Rather than storytelling and dramaturgy (which will be fore-fronted in future residencies), rehearsals at BAC were devoted to music. “I am leading it more as a band leader and less as an Actors Equity-style 29 hour workshop. We purposefully didn't hire a musical director or stage manager. I love that collaborative breaking down of barriers.”
Due to sheer volume of the source material and his commitment to attend to all of it, Malloy’s Moby Dick welcomes unwieldiness. “My experience of seeing really long theater pieces is that you end up having a communal experience. You take breaks together, you feel like you’re in a process together. We’ll have a lunch break, a dinner break, lots of beer and rum. That’s what the whaling ship was like; they were stuck in a communal experience for three years; we want the audience to feel like they’re there on the ship, experiencing this giant epic thing.”