UC Davis actors set sail with ‘Moby-Dick’

By April 26, 2011

Check it out

What: “The Moby-Dick Variations”

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 5-7 and 12-14; 2 p.m. Sundays, May 8 and 15; 2 p.m.

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center

Tickets: $17-$19 genera; $12-14 students, seniors and children; http://mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

Rating: PG-13

The UC Davis department of theater and dance presents “The Moby-Dick Variations,” an unconventional new work conceived and directed by John Zibell, a master of fine arts directing candidate, and devised by the production company. The multi-dimensional piece is inspired by Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

Like the novel, it is about perspective and multiculturalism. Unlike the novel, it is set in the present and investigates the disappearance of the human animal from the natural landscape.

“The Moby-Dick Variations” opens Thursday, May 5, and continues through Sunday, May 15, at Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is the tale of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod commanded by Captain Ahab, a character who is defined by his obsession for revenge on the sperm whale Moby Dick. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab’s ship and bit off his leg. “The Moby-Dick Variations” follows Melville’s narrative and plot in a non-linear fashion exploring the multiplicity of perspectives both within and outside of the novel.

Director Zibell’s objective is twofold: to enable the audience to experience the multiplicity of perspectives that Melville delivers in the novel, and to allow the audience further perspectives through their own and the actors’ contemporary lenses. “Traditionally, theater tells you what to think; ‘The Moby-Dick Variations’ audience has to bring thoughts of their own.”

Zibell describes the new work as an exercise in collective story-telling. One of the methods he has used to express this is a “breath score” developed by experimental composer and performance studies doctoral candidate Dylan Bolles. Zibell elaborates that “breath is rhythmic but not regular, like ocean waves.” He likens this approach to jazz: “Every performance will be different and we’re training to play a song, improvise like Coltrane. Conceptually what we’re doing is xenopoetics — composing out of disparate materials.”

These materials include Melville’s text, the performers and their present-day perspectives, digital video collage, scenic and costume designs.

“The scenic design is much like a street wall with layers of images or fliers containing layers of meaning,” says scenic designer Gian Scarabino, a master of fine arts candidate. All of these layers contribute to Melville’s ‘multitudinous, god-omnipresent.’ In some cases the layers themselves are even broken up by allowing performers to pass through to another perspective.”

Another method used to create the many strata of perspective is the “text score.” Following this blueprint, the actors perform all the different characters at varying times. “Everybody is Ishmael at some point,” Zibell says. Even audience members can be Ishmael, as they have the opportunity to view and interact with the performance from many viewpoints.

Although the piece experiments with the multiplicity of character and perspective, several anchors remain: Actors Will Klundt and Alejandro Torres serve as fixed versions of the characters Ishmael and Queequeg. Performer Emelie Coleman serves as another anchor in a ritualized dance sequence that is video-projected throughout the piece.

Zibell resists the typical audience experience. There is neither traditional stage nor spectator seating. Rather, audience members are invited to wander among the performers.

“Audience members may come to the theater expecting to be told the story of Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg and others,” says Claire Maria Chambers, a cast member and a performance studies doctoral candidate. “Instead, they will be given impressions of and experiences of loss and love, strife and friendship, the vastness of the ocean and the idea of death.”

Additional dimensions are added to “The Moby-Dick Variations” by costume designer and master of fine arts candidate Maggie Chan. Her wardrobe reflects the period of Melville’s novel as well as the contemporary setting of this work. Among her designs is a coral reef costume worn by six of the female performers. Chan notes, “The coral women represent the beauty of the ocean, but at the same time when you look closely, you see details that you didn’t see from far away. Up close, you’ll see the dresses being a bit tattered and the performers wearing jewelry made from ‘trash.’ They encompass the beauty and man-made destruction of the ocean.”

Despite the experimental approach of “The Moby-Dick Variations,” the essence of Melville’s work remains.

“The beauty of the novel is in its prose and poetry,” Zibell says. “The narrative is almost not there. Like life, it feels like there’s a story but what you’re inside of is the experience, the poetry, not the objective meaning.”

Special to The Enterprise

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