Bobbing atop the vast, unforgiving Atlantic in rowboats, whalers face a ghostly white cetacean that has prevailed in all of its previous encounters with puny humankind.
As this face-off unfolds in the outdoor amphitheater of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, the whale is visible to every theater-goer — not physically, but as reflected in the wonder and terror on the actors’ faces.
Ingenuity is the engine of Orson Welles’ 1955 adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” He called it “Moby Dick — Rehearsed,” framing it as a theater company’s exploration of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. The actors are meant to make use of furnishings at hand and mime the rest.
Welles further envisioned that the actors set aside rehearsal of “King Lear” to take up “Moby-Dick,” and we glimpse a bit of their work on Shakespeare’s tragedy. This sets us up to appreciate just how Shakespearean Melville’s novel is and, specifically, how “Lear”-ian. Each tale is about a ruler (Lear, with a kingdom; Captain Ahab, a whaling ship) who becomes so fixated on an idea that good governing gets subverted.
Ellen Geer artfully directs a cast of 19 in this rarely encountered script, which honors the power of imagination.
As rehearsal shifts to “Moby-Dick,” a length of rope is wound around the legs of upturned stools, suggesting the outline of the sturdy ship Pequod.
A young actor enthused about Melville’s novel becomes, naturally, the novice whaler/narrator, Ishmael (Dane Oliver).
Ahab and the albino whale known as Moby-Dick don’t show up for a while, so the story focuses at first on Ishmael’s mind-broadening introduction to the fearsome/friendly South Pacific islander Queequeg (Michael McFall), then the multinational population of the Pequod.
As the vessel leaves port in Nantucket, Mass., for the ocean, the cast begins to sway to the movement of the imagined water.
When Ahab (Gerald C. Rivers) finally appears, we see flashes of the exemplary captain he once was, but after losing a leg to Moby-Dick, he has unilaterally decided to hunt just that whale, upending the ship’s purpose and endangering his fragile, floating society.
In the climactic confrontation, the actors face the audience in small “boats” built of benches and chairs. We sense the whale as a mammoth expanse of white light behind us, threatening to swallow us whole (lighting design by Zach Moore).
For Ahab as for Lear, obsession is about to cause a precipitous change in circumstances. The world is his — and his to lose.
‘Moby Dick — Rehearsed’
Where: Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: In repertory various Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, through Sept. 29
Info: (310) 455-3723, theatricum.com
Running time: 2 hours