Meet Ahab and his White Whale in Bay Street’s ‘Moby Dick’

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Harris Yulin as Capt. Ahab in "Moby Dick." Composite image by Mike Billings.

When you take a walk out to the end of the newly refurbished Long Wharf in Sag Harbor and gaze out over the waters of Peconic Bay that lead to the wide open Atlantic beyond, it’s easy to imagine what the scene would’ve looked like a century and a half ago.

Back then, it wasn’t luxury yachts, but rather three-masted sailing schooners that plied these waters and docked alongside the wharf as they unloaded their precious cargo of whale oil and took on new supplies in preparation to return again to the high seas for what often could be a multi-year journey in search of their leviathan bounty.

In a poetic bit of coincidence, at the foot of Long Wharf, which was the hub of the 19th century whaling industry on Long Island, sits Bay Street Theater. On November 17, the theater will dive headlong into the world of whaling when it presents Herman Melville’s 19th century novel “Moby Dick; or, The Whale,” as its annual “Literature Live!” production.

“Literature Live!” is Bay Street’s educational initiative, which brings classic books alive on stage for the benefit of the area’s middle and high school students who read the same novels in their English classes. Each November for a dozen years, thousands of students have traditionally flocked to Bay Street Theater from all over Long Island to enjoy productions, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlett Letter,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

But this year, COVID-19, of course, has changed everything, including how theater is presented. Which is why this version of “Moby Dick” will be told as a virtual production directed by Bay Street’s associate artistic director, Will Pomerantz, using an adaptation of Melville’s script written by the theater’s director of education and community outreach, Allen O’Reilly.

Wonza Johnson as Ishmael in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

Harris Yulin will star as the unhinged Captain Ahab, who is seeking revenge, unwilling to give up on his misguided mission to find and kill the white whale (aka Moby Dick) that took his leg several years earlier. The Pequod’s hapless crew — first mate Starbuck; second mate Stubb; Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner; and of course Ishmael, the story’s narrator — are forced to go along for the fruitless ride as Ahab puts not only himself, but all his men, at risk for the sake of his personal vendetta.

For Pomerantz, the notion of a group of men being confined at sea for such a long duration is what really intrigued him about the story.

“Just that whole idea of going on a voyage for three years — as far as the Sea of Japan — and these crazy long journeys, all these men on the ship together. It’s an unbelievable journey,” he said. “Ahab says he’s maybe spent three years on land in 20 years and pities his poor wife.”

Given what happens at sea, perhaps Ahab’s wife was the fortunate one to be left behind safe at home on dry land. In a somewhat ironic twist, it turns out that Pomerantz and crew are also at home these days, assembling this theatrical production in total isolation from one another as they turn to 21st century tools of the trade like Zoom, special video effects and editing by designer Mike Billings, who, in normal times, would be building sets and working with theatrical lighting the old fashioned way — in person.

“The way we’re stuck apart, I wish I could get on a boat with these people,” jokes Pomerantz.

Allen O’Reilly as Coffin in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

The pandemic has forced actors, directors and designers to get creative, and in addition to Billings and Pomerantz’s vision, this production also features an original score by Michael Holland and costume design by Meghan O’Beirne. Pomerantz explains that instead of actors appearing on a Zoom screen in street clothes while sitting in their bedrooms, all of them will be wearing costumes and — thanks to green screen technology — will appear in front of exciting backdrops and settings that set the scene of the Pequod. To make the effects for this virtual production work, green screens and costumes were mailed to actors ahead of time.

“It’s really quite astonishing to me,” said Pomerantz, who is working from his home in New York City these days. “We’re kind of making this hybrid of film and theater, there’s unbelievable back and forth. Mike sends me links and I watch and make notes and send them back.”

There’s a lot to unpack. “Moby Dick” is a dense novel and condensing the story into a 90-minute play was the job of Allen O’Reilly. When asked why the decision was made to present this story in the first place, given the material, Pomerantz explains that it was the result of a survey the theater sent out to teachers and heads of schools who had brought their students to see past productions at Bay Street.

“Allen asked them, ‘What of these titles to choose from are you most interested in seeing?’” Pomerantz said. “‘Moby Dick’ was the first choice for the majority. We thought, ‘Oh, really? Why’d we do that?’”

Dan Domingues as first mate Starbuck in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

Fortunately, adds Pomerantz, O’Reilly knew the book well and he volunteered to take a stab at writing the adaptation.

“He shared an early draft, and I was impressed at how well and satisfying it was,” said Pomerantz. “There’s a focus on characters, relationships and maintaining the basic narrative structure.

“Still, it’s a massive job,” he added. “We had a process. He did six to eight drafts, and we refined the content and made it playable for actors. What I really took away is, it’s about these relationships — Ahab and Starbuck and Ishmael and Queequeg and Stub. In those moments, they connect with you and you really feel it in this difficult context of being confined.”

In these days of quarantine, confinement is certainly a feeling many of us can readily relate to — even without the wooden ship. Ultimately, it is the story of Ahab and his relentless quest for revenge that offers the cautionary tale here.

“Character is destiny. It’s the dangerousness of Ahab. People talk about something being someone’s ‘white whale,’ the thing they chase and the consequences of who they’ll take down with them,” Pomerantz said. “Ahab is monomaniacal. He has one crazy urge, but the malevolence he feels for this one whale is not explicable.

Trent Saunders as Queequeg in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

“He’s willing to sacrifice everything — and everyone — to kill this one whale.”

In terms of this production, Pomerantz notes that “Moby Dick” is a step up from previous virtual productions he and his team have created since the pandemic began in March.

“We’ve been on this learning curve,” he said. “Usually, we’ll have two actors and sometimes three in a piece, but this is seven actors, and it becomes much more complex in terms of recording and how to edit it.”

That means the actors have a few props that are artfully deployed, and it falls to Billings to fill in the rest of the picture, using the green screen technology.

“There are little things you can do,” Pomerantz noted. “All the whale hunting sequences take place on a smaller boat, and what’s interesting is you can create a vocabulary that’s shorthand. There’s a great quote by Picasso — ‘With no limits, there can be no art.’ The limits are what force the solutions.”

Nehal Joshi as Fedallah in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

Those solutions include a digital crow’s nest at the top of the screen when actors are on duty at the upper most part of the ship while Ahab is yelling up to them from the deck, placed at the bottom of the screen. There’s also the digital action of lowering the small whale boats off the side of the ship indicating when the crew is in active pursuit of their quarry.

“Mike Billings is so great. He’s developing an overall visual style. We have maps, engravings of the period, moving stock footage — it’s a combination of things,” said Pomerantz. “The use of montage in film is very powerful and we’ll use that quite a bit, using a rhythm of cuts and flashing images that create the sense of time.”

Pomerantz adds that there is also a bookend device in the script in which viewers get to meet young Melville himself (portrayed by actor John Kroft) as he is struggling to write “Moby Dick” and engages in conversation with Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the vignette, Pomerantz notes that it is Hawthorne who encourages him and gives Melville suggestions to deepen the book and share his philosophical perspective.

“We see young Melville. He was in his 30s and had a little success with shorter works at the time he was writing the book,” Pomerantz notes. “He was hoping this would be his ‘Scarlet Letter.’ It wasn’t well received in that only 3,200 copies of ‘Moby Dick’ sold in his lifetime.”

But after William Faulkner praised the novel in the 20th century, interest in it was reignited, and today, Melville’s “Moby Dick,” has joined the ranks of classic American literature.

John Kroft as Herman Melville in “Moby Dick.” Composite image by Mike Billings.

By the way, in Sag Harbor, it’s also long-standing tradition to take part in an annual “Moby Dick” marathon reading. The tradition began around 1983 at Canio’s Books and continues (when there’s not a pandemic) to this day, with people signing up to read in shifts at various locations all over town. In June 2019, Harris Yulin, who plays Ahab in this Bay Street production, read Father Mapple’s sermon at the Old Whalers’ Church — proving that whaling is not an entirely extinct profession in this coastal fishing village.

Bay Street Theater’s “Literature Live!” production of “Moby Dick” airs online at baystreet.org on Tuesday, November 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 per household and the production runs 90-minutes. It features Harris Yulin, Dan Domingues, Wonza Johnson, Nehal Joshi, John Kroft, Trent Saunders and Allen O’Reilly. Following the online premiere, the home viewing audience is invited to “raise a cup of ale” alongside the cast as part of a talkback segment held via Zoom.

The performance is provided free of charge to any school group, their teachers, and administrators. As the 2020 presentation will be virtual, schools from across the country can sign up for this free offering.

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