Ralph Gardner Jr: Moby Dick In Performance

Sep 28, 2019

There’s no need to feel inadequate if you haven’t read Moby Dick. And now you don’t have to in any case. Conor Lovett, Judy Hegarty Lovett and Ireland’s Gare St. Lazare theater company are bringing their adaptation of Herman Melville’s epic whaling novel to Hudson, NY’s Hudson Hall next Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

“No inflatable whales,” Conor told me over the phone from Middlebury, Vermont. He was there leading a Samuel Beckett workshop at Middlebury College.

He didn’t bring up the possibility of inflatable whales or some other manifestation of Captain Ahab’s great white nemesis. I did.

“The stage is kept very simple,” added Judy. “A table and a chair.”

I haven’t yet seen Conor’s one-man adaptation of the novel, or rather two-man since the actor is accompanied by – hang with me here -- Caoimhin (Kee-veen) O’Raghallaigh on the hardanger d’Amore – that’s a ten-string fiddle. And I’ve no doubt mangled Mr. O’Raghallaigh’s name and that of his instrument.

But friends who had the privilege of watching Conor Lovett perform an excerpt from the show last spring at a Hudson Hall fundraiser told me they were wowed. The full show, a condensed version of the novel in Hudson Hall’s 1855 performance space, is 103 minutes long.

Conor, sticking mostly to the text of the novel, portrays multiple characters during the performance including Ahab, the whale’s obsessed pursuer; Starbuck, the first mate on the Pequoid and primarily Ishmael, the story’s narrator.

“The only one to survive to tell the tale,” Conor explained.

I guess that qualifies as a spoiler, at least it did for me.

I may have mentioned there’s no need to feel inadequate if you haven’t read Moby Dick. I include myself in that category.

However, I have listened to it. Some months ago my daughter suggested listening to audio books as a healthy alternative to sleep medication for insomnia. So I went about downloading several novels in the public domain, Moby Dick among them.

I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible the classic was, even humorous in places. “It has a lot of humor,” Conor concurred, “and a lot of darkness,” he added. “It has something for everybody.”

The problem with listening to audio books, especially as a sleep aid, is that if they do their job you fall asleep. So you may nod off while Ishmael is offering a disquisition on cooled sperm oil or a taxonomy of whale species or harpoons only to awaken to a man falling overboard from the mast.

To be honest I may have slept through the latter, say, fifty chapters of the book.

But no worries. I’ll be in the audience for one of the performances. Also, I’m pleased to report that I suffer little residual guilt from graduating high school having read classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter and securing a passing grade solely through Cliff Notes. Not that I’m recommending that any local high schoolers patronize Moby Dick at Hudson Hall in place of reading the book.

The whaling novel is but one in a cavalcade of events Hudson Hall is throwing – including theater, talks, spoken word and music to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth as well as Hudson’s own history as a whaling town.

Also involved is Alan Melville Chapin, Melville’s great, great grandson who lives in the area.

I have no idea whether Herman Melville visited Hudson to research his novel but that would be interesting to find out. However he did pen the tome in nearby Pittsfield, MA. Indeed, the snow covered hump of Mount Greylock outside his writing room window, and its resemblance to the super mammal, is said to have helped inspire his imagination.

The Lovetts haven’t yet visited Arrowhead, Melville’s Pittsfield home and now a historic house museum. But they’re planning to do so next weekend.

I was also intrigued by an Irish theater company mounting the American classic. Judy didn’t find anything unusual about it, noting that the crew of the Pequoid was composed of sailors of many nationalities, probably including a few Irishmen.

Also, John Houston’s 1956 film version with Gregory Peck was set in the town of Youghal in County Cork. The Gare St. Lazare theater company also hails from Cork.

Perhaps I’m over-romanticizing it, but having spent summers during my childhood in Tramore, a seaside town to the east of Youghal, I can see how easily Ireland’s sea and clouds and mists can infiltrate your DNA and certainly inform a nautical performance.

Perhaps it does. “Every time I perform it,” Conor said, “it feels like going off to sea in the Pequoid with these guys.” 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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