Orson Welles’s interest in dramatizing Moby Dick goes back at least to a 1946 radio version; this followed by an oratorio that never happened and a cameo as Father Mapple in John Huston’s movie, which apparently Welles wanted to make. In 1955, he staged his minimalist Moby Dick—Rehearsed in London: A late-19th-century Shakespearean stock company, led by Himself, interrupts a rehearsal of Lear to read-through an adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. This legendary production, which Welles also attempted to film, ran three weeks and was staged on Broadway seven years later with Rod Steiger as Lear-Ahab-Welles.
Marc Silberschatz’s bare-bones but robustly acted production may be the first New York has seen since. Performed without a set, Moby Dick—Rehearsed is close to radio drama. The emphasis is on the power of Melville’s language, and the sturdy ensemble gathered in the cozy confines of the Richmond Shepard Theater is anchored by Seth Duerr’s bravura, at times Wellesian, Ahab. The use of the play within the play isn’t at all Pirandellian; once the stage is set, Welles does not break the spell. He does tweak it a bit however, turning Melville’s chapter on the evil of whiteness into a dialogue between Ahab and terrified Pip. The African American cabin boy is played, per Welles’s script, by the company’s Cordelia (Nicole Benish), never more white and womanly than when exclaiming, “Have mercy on a small black boy!”