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Originally published Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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"Moby-Dick" begins at Book-It Repertory Theatre

Playwright David Quicksall has adapted the massive "Moby-Dick" for the stage; the play is now premiering at Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle.

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

"Moby-Dick or The Whale"

Plays Wednesdays-Sundays through March 8, Book-It Repertory Theatre at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (www.book-it.org or 206-216-0833).

"It ... is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book... "

— Herman Melville, describing his novel "Moby-Dick" in an 1851 letter

There are books that are naturals for stage adaptation. There are books that are challenging to turn into live theater events.

And then there is "Moby-Dick."

The Herman Melville novel, one of the most celebrated and debated works in the American literary canon, is no stranger to the stage. And currently, the intrepid Book-It Repertory Theatre is introducing a world-premiere version of "Moby-Dick" at Center House Theatre.

But it has mostly been contemporary avant-garde artists in the theater (and big Hollywood studios in the film world) who have tackled this complex and daunting, philosophical treatise/adventure tale about an epic hunt on the high seas for a fabled whale.

Those experimental productions — running from the ridiculous ("Fluke," by the troupe Radiohole) to the fascinating (the Rinde Eckert opera "God Created White Whales") — can take extreme artistic liberties with a literary talisman that is considered a hallowed text by today's large, fierce contingent of "Melvillians," some 700 critics, writers and other readers who are great fans of the author and members of The Melville Society.

By adapting and directing a more text-faithful, dozen-actor version of "Moby-Dick" for Book-It Rep, Seattle theater artist David Quicksall is well aware he is treading on what many literary buffs consider to be sacred ground. So why risk it?

"In the throes of rehearsals, I've asked myself that question a few times," admits Quicksall. He adds wryly, "I guess that after finishing an adaptation of 'Don Quixote' for Book-It [co-written with Anne Ludlum], I just went to the next hugest book I know."

One serious draw was the briny nature of a saga about men at sea, including the narrator Ishmael and his whale-obsessed ship captain, Ahab — a "grand, ungodly, godlike" old salt. The two, along with a multicultural crew of harpooners and ship's mates, chase the nature of existence and do battle with nature during Ahab's quest for a great white whale known as Moby-Dick.

Like Melville, who spent much of his youth as a merchant seaman (and much of his adult life writing about life at sea), Quicksall was a sailor also.

"It's quite an experience going to sea as a young man, and you never forget the vastness of the water, the spectacular things you see," says Quicksall, who at age 17 began a four-year hitch with the U.S. Navy. "I was trained as a navigator, observing the skies, the sun, the stars as we sailed around Asia. All the waters Melville describes I have an intimate understanding of because I've navigated them. Like the Straits of Malacca [near Singapore] — I've been there."

But there is far more to Melville's 700-plus page tome than a standard shipboard yarn. "The movies based on the book, for me they tend to make it just an action adventure story," Quicksall notes. "They're just glamorized versions of 'Jaws,' about a bunch of guys in a boat hunting down a big fish.

"What's lost is in the book's internal, inward journey. It took me eight drafts of the script to find those deep places Melville ruminates on, the 'lower levels,' as he called them."

Dan Beachy-Quick, a poet who teaches literature and creative writing at Colorado State University, heartily concurs. His new book "A Whaler's Dictionary" (Milkweed Editions) is an intriguing meditation on dozens of different themes and symbols in "Moby-Dick," which many critics regard as a densely packed work of experimental fiction far ahead of its time.

"'Moby-Dick' is filled with concerns that tap into a lot of millennial things going on in our own time — a sense of crisis, of destruction, a sense of radical hope," suggests Beachy-Quick. "The way the book is structured, it jumps all over the place. It has no direct lineal line. It's a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, what Melville called a 'careful disorder,' which is akin to how we think today."

These aspects of "Moby-Dick" have not always been admired. In his 1923 volume "Studies in Classic American Literature," novelist and critic D.H. Lawrence described Melville's novel as a "great book," but also one that could be "clownish," "clumsy" and "sententiously in bad taste."

As scholar and recent Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant put it, "No American author has been more puzzled over and written about, more lambasted and lionized, than Herman Melville."

So how exactly has Quicksall handled the book's multilayered structure and metaphysical probings?

For that matter, how has he dealt with the physical challenges of conjuring a whaling boat on the high seas, and a typhoon critical to the plot? "My designers and I didn't want to do the usual theatrical storm, but something beyond reality, something we do with light and sound and language that becomes mysterious and almost cosmic," he explains.

But what about the proverbial "whale in the room"? That is, what about evoking a Physeter macrocephalus, or sperm whale (which Melville describes in zoological terms in the book's chapter, "Cetology") — a spout-breathing breed that can be 60-plus feet long, and weigh up to 50 tons?

"The first thing I told myself is, 'You can't bring a fake whale on stage,' " Quicksall reports. "I didn't want to do anything with puppets, or make a big rubber thing, so it will be lot more ambiguous."

He continues, "Look, the whale doesn't even show up until the last 20 pages, and to me the story is much more about what the whale means to Ishmael and Ahab than its physical existence."

Which swims us back to the metaphorical complexity of the novel, with its digressions on such matters as the 19th-century whaling industry, the meaning of visual "whiteness," the quirks of death and fate, cross-cultural mysticism et al.

Since Quicksall readily admits he can't squeeze most of that into a 2-½-hour play, the only way to get the full effect is to read the book first — which is no easy task, as even the most devout Melvillians will agree.

Should you take on the assignment, Beachy-Quick has a few tips. "Some people are predestined to love this book," he says. "But if you're not one of them, I recommend getting together a reading group so you can read it in chunks, and talk through it together."

Or you can take Melville's own advice. In a note to his publisher, he directed that the book be divided into "57 chapters ... that might be skimmed or skipped over the first time through."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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