You don’t stage “Titanic” without an ocean liner or “King Kong” without a great ape. So anybody’s first question about a theatrical version of “Moby Dick” is bound to be: How the heck will they do the whales?
The answer to that, like the answer to most questions in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s zesty take on the Herman Melville classic, is: with a pleasing simplicity. In the best of the play’s thrilling set pieces, dancer/actor Kelly Nelson — dressed in nondescript street clothes — plays an anonymous whale captured by the sailors of the Pequod. There’s suspense and danger in the sequence as Nelson’s frenzied motions suggest the unfortunate creature’s attempts to escape the harpoons of Capt. Ahab and his men (and women, a creative choice that offers various juicy roles for female actors in a story whose original is notably lacking in women).
The big moments are the best moments in director/writer James Napoleon Stone’s adaptation of “Moby Dick,” which makes ingenious use of the wood floor, brick walls and metal balcony in a studio space where there’s no stage to separate audience from actors. (The program doesn’t list a set designer, but Meagan Kedrowski is credited as scenic coordinator.)
A thunderstorm at sea makes great use of the intimate space at Fallout Arts in south Minneapolis. As the 13 actors spread out to fill nearly every inch, to indicate the Pequod’s crew battling the elements, I had to shift my foot to avoid kicking one of them.
Some ropes and trunk-like boxes help the cast suggest the town of Nantucket and the Pequod itself, and the actors get atmospheric assistance from a four-piece band that provides underscoring, sound effects and the occasional sea shanty.
It’s in the quieter moments that this “Moby Dick” falters, specifically those in which Ishmael (Eva Gemlo) narrates the story for us. Ishmael has some very long monologues, and Gemlo struggled with them on opening night. She seemed surer of herself as the evening progressed, but she has an ironic, up-talky way of speaking that suggests one of Archie’s and Veronica’s pals in “Riverdale” more than it does Nantucket.
Ishmael is, of course, meant to be a vulnerable character, but this one’s faltering keeps taking us out of the setting that is created by Stone’s rough-hewed dialogue and the performers’ convincing array of accents.
When the ensemble takes over, the show gets much sturdier. Stone has assembled a committed, hardworking cast, highlighted by Kedrowski’s brash, genial Stubb and Adam Scarpello’s intimidating Ahab.
The adaptation captures the essence of Melville’s epic tale, even if time considerations force it to say goodbye to the novelist’s 50-page digressions about scrimshaw and blubber.
If obsessive detail is what you’re looking for in “Moby Dick,” Coup D’Etat’s version likely isn’t for you. But if you’re fascinated by the claustrophobic camaraderie of life aboard a doomed ship, this show is see-worthy.
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Who: Written and directed by James Napoleon Stone for Theatre Coup d’Etat.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Mon. Ends Nov. 20.
Where: Fallout Arts, 2601 2nd Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $18-$40, theatrecoupdetat.com.