The Broad sets sail for 'Moby Dick'

The Library Foundation of Los Angeles brought a centuries-old literary masterpiece to life when Herman Melville's "My Moby Dick" conquered the Broad Stage on Saturday night. The show, which was mainly a dramatic reading enhanced with theater props, instrumental and vocal music, and multimedia, celebrated the words of Melville while imagining scenes and characters that planted the story of Moby Dick into modern Southern California. It was a lively, dark, sometimes surreal but effective experience.

The show began with a mournful piano piece played by a hunched musician drenched in shadow. His piano was surrounded by other instruments such as tambourines and drums. Ocean waves serenely moved on a giant screen that served as the prime backdrop for the entire show.

Then the novel's main character Ishmael, played by Michael Arden, appeared onstage behind a podium, dressed like a modern dock worker, and recited the opening passages of Melville's masterpiece.

From there, the production went into a series of moments that were impressive in the way they did not just narrate "Moby Dick" as a novel, but instead they re-imagined the novel's ideas, characters and importance as a timeless work of authentic Americana by combining the narration of the classic tale with modern dress, high tech media, and unique interpretations of the readings.

Different actors appeared onstage and read chapters from "Moby Dick" as musicians played music with prominent sounds of seashells that sounded appropriate for a dark, obsessive sea voyage. The readings always felt alive, and every single actor seemed to be enjoying the experience.

Actress Charlayne Woodard was vibrant during her reading of the chapter when Ishmael first encountered the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg.

Actor Stacy Keach, surrounded by mist, delivered a dark, brooding Captain Ahab, obsessed by his quest to capture the great white whale.

Here the text selection was particularly effective, surprising the audience with an excerpt in which Captain Ahab did not, as many might have expected, ramble about the whale, but instead, spoke about his young wife with whom he only lived for one night before setting out to sea again. Keach gave the words a power that was haunting and eloquent.

Music was also a driving force in this production. It was done with real gusto and creative freedom. Two interludes featured the band Garretson & Gorodetsky which played songs with a cabaret feel featuring lyrics directly taken from "Moby Dick." With each reading, there was atmospheric music, and images were projected to compliment the words being spoken. For example when actress Shohreh Aghdashloo read the chapter "The Pacific," the screen glowed with images of flowing water that seemed to envelope the stage.

Featured in between the live readings were filmed interviews with writers, musicians, critics and actors such as Patton Oswalt, who played among other moves in "Young Adult," and techno artist Moby, all of whom shared hilarious, sometimes sharp memories about reading "Moby Dick," and their understanding of its themes.

But the great standout moments came when the production entered truly creative, even surreal territory.

One section featured a scientist who appeared onstage in a lab coat. He went on to explain a wild military project code named Project Moby Dick, in which the army attempted to create an armada of weaponized whales.

A little crazy? Yes, but it also modernized one of the novel's driving themes that the ultimate predator, man, encroaches into the natural world and unbalances the ecological terrain of a creature like Moby Dick.

The most memorable of these scenes came when actor John Fleck was rolled onto the stage in a shower that represented a boat. With devilish glee and risqué tone, Fleck recited a chapter famous for the way Melville describes in almost metaphysical, hallucinatory prose the feel and warmth of whale semen which will be collected for the production of ointment.

Fleck finished the moment by donning angel wings and singing an aria to roaring applause from the audience. It was a welcome display of how the Library Foundation of Los Angeles is not afraid to be risky.