Call them gutsy. Actor Conor Lovett and director Judy Hegerty Lovett have created a series of memorable one-man shows in recent years, mining the literary tradition of their native Ireland to capture subtle nuances of human behavior. Two of their profoundly moving minimalist productions have traveled to Ventura: Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief and, last summer, Samuel Beckett’s First Love.
This year, the husband-and-wife team set their sights on a larger, more unwieldy, and decidedly American target: Moby Dick. They will present their original adaptation of Herman Melville’s sprawling novel about a sea captain’s obsessive search for a great white whale at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre. It will also play at 8 p.m., August 20, at the Carlson Family Theatre in Calabasas, where it will kick off Linda Purl’s California International Theatre Festival 2009.
Like their previous productions, Moby Dick is a monologue, performed on a nearly empty stage. Lovett assumes the voice of the novel’s narrator, the enigmatic sailor Ishmael. He tells the story in about two hours. As the Irish Times noted in its rave review of the premiere in April, “This is a distillation of Melville’s genius, not a dissection.”
In an email message from Ireland, Conor Lovett revealed that neither he nor his wife had read the classic novel until two years ago. “Judy read it and immediately was taken by the confessional nature, which she thought would work well onstage with one person,” he said.
“It just blew me away,” Judy said. Of course, a lot of that powerful prose had to be pared away to get the show down to a reasonable length. Doing so “was a long process,” Judy said, noting it involved “presenting the work before several test audiences.” “We hated cutting anything,” said Conor.
With its dramatic sea chases and deep philosophical undertones, there’s no question that Moby Dick is a compelling piece of writing. But does Melville’s ornate language lend itself to the stage?
“More than we imagined,” Judy said. “We have focused on the voice of Ishmael. We hear his story. This approach lends itself very well to being spoken out loud.”
“It’s always a challenge to make the words sound spontaneous,” added Conor. “I thought it would be harder than it was. While Beckett often uses the stream-of-consciousness model, Melville’s words appear more ‘wordy’ and ‘bookish.’ We were pleasantly surprised to find they are easy on the ear and can sound perfectly natural.”
Moby Dick is often read as an allegory, with Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the elusive whale interpreted in a variety of ways. Depending upon your point of view, it’s about humankind vs. nature, the self-destructiveness of vengeance, or the reckless pursuit of the unobtainable.
The Lovetts are careful not to claim a specific interpretation.
“The last thing the audience wants to know is what the actor thinks,” Conor said. “They just want to be able to communicate directly with the characters and, through them, with the writer. Then they have the option to take the story on face value and, if they like, to project their own interpretations.”
“It makes for a better performance if we manage to be nonjudgmental [regarding the story’s meaning],” Judy agreed. “The audience has more chance, then, of making their own interpretation of his so-called obsession.”
But she couldn’t resist hinting that she sees the work as a cautionary tale, a dramatization of the danger of placing power in the wrong hands. “Rightly or wrongly,” she noted, “one man can bring down a ship with all on board-and still not kill the whale.”
Tickets to Moby Dick at the Rubicon Theatre are $39; call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org for more information. Tickets to the Calabasas performance are $20-$35; call (800) 341-2766 or visit citfestival.org for more information.