- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Perhaps you know Orson Welles as the brilliant, deranged director of “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons” and other film classics, or maybe as the gifted radio director and actor who scared the wits out of Americans with his famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938. Those less culturally savvy may recall him as the stentorian spokesman for Gallo wines and as a frequent, brimming-with-bonhomie guest on the Johnny Carson show.

Mr. Welles also wrote one play, a loose-limbed 1955 adaptation of Herman Melville’s whaling novel. Titled “Moby Dick Rehearsed,” it celebrates humble stagecraft, the power of imagination and the thrum of live performance. The American Century Theater hauls this work out of obscurity in a lively production that plays up the cockamamie aspects of Mr. Welles’ play without sacrificing its drama.

The story behind “Moby Dick Rehearsed” is nearly as theatrical as the play itself. Mr. Welles rehearsed with a British cast in London’s West End that included Joan Plowright as Pip the cabin boy (a role she played on her knees) and Patrick McGoohan as the Quaker first mate, Starbuck.

Mr. Welles was his usual colorful self: strolling in whenever he chose, rehearsing 12 to 15 hours a day and never acting directly with the actors. (He preferred to declaim through a microphone while he sat sipping brandy.) He never learned his lines, though he played the juiciest roles, Father Mapple and Captain Ahab. He fancied to “keep the performance fresh” and unhampered by memorization.

Although Peter Brook stated that the production profoundly influenced his development as a director, “Moby Dick Rehearsed” ran just three weeks in July of 1955 and has rarely been heard of since.

Seen 50 years later, Mr. Welles’ work stands as an audacious piece of improvisational theater. His premise for “Moby Dick” is having a troupe of actors, under the sway of a dictatorial director (Charles Matheny), abruptly cease rehearsals for “King Lear” to put on Melville’s classic without the benefit of elaborate costumes, scenery or props.

A platform serves as the whaling ship, the Pequod; a tall ladder as the mast and crow’s nest; some crude wooden benches as the smaller boats. When it calls for rain, the actors splash each other with bottled water, and a storm is rendered by flicking the overhead lights on and off. The actors replicate the movement of the sea by gently rocking back and forth.

This is all surprisingly effective, mostly because the actors, under the astute direction of Jack Marshall, appear to be passionately immersed in pulling off the ruse. In the intimate confines of the American Century Theater, some of the acting veers uneasily into mugging or hysterical screeching, but overall, the troupe pulls it together and is highly convincing as mates on a doomed ship led by the mad Captain Ahab (Mr. Matheny).

They are most winning when executing the day-to-day tasks of running a ship, chores lightened by a cappella singing. David Jourdan as crew member Stubbs stirs all the old sea chants to life with his clear, ringing voice. Mr. Matheny plays Ahab as a man almost religious in his obsession with the great white whale — it is not merely a challenge, but a spiritual quest to kill this mythical, uncaring creature.

These scenes vividly re-create the salt tang and desperation of life at sea, but “Moby Dick Rehearsed” takes on water in the improvisational scenes, when the cast must act like actors. A self-consciousness pervades these moments, although there is some comic inventiveness when the stage manager (Tom Fuller) is summoned from his props table to man the oars and he thoughtfully runs back to turn off the light, and in another bit in which an actor is late returning from McDonald’s and walks in, chatting away on his cell phone to the caller that the play is “kinda like ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”

American Century’s simple production conjures such a pungent sense of theater magic that it is unfortunate we are jarred back to the present day when an actor ad-libs at the end, “Whales suck.”

As long as “Moby Dick Rehearsed” remains at sea, the dramatic course holds steady. It only runs aground when the actors are left to conjure up the business of acting.

**1/2

WHAT: “Moby Dick Rehearsed” by Orson Welles

WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater Two, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30.

TICKETS: $18 to $26

PHONE: 703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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