Louis McWilliams as Ishmael in the foreground with other cast members behind..

Louis McWilliams as Ishmael in Stanford Repertory Theater's production of Moby Dick - Rehearsed. (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

Stanford Repertory Theater in the throes of a whale hunt and preparing for an alien invasion

Stanford Rep's summer festival celebrates Orson Welles with his theatrical adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick and a recreation of his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Perhaps it was Orson Welles' fascination with magic as a youth that inspired him to turn a 200,000-word novel into a 90-minute play. The trick worked. His Moby Dick – Rehearsed invokes the sea, the great white whale and the infectious mania of Captain Ahab with just a few props, some scaffolding and a remarkable ensemble cast.

Part of Welles' magic was choosing the best scenes in Herman Melville's masterpiece to represent the core of the story on stage: Ahab's compulsion to hunt down Moby Dick and his conversion of the crew of the Pequod into more or less willing agents of his will.

"Welles has an uncannily good ear for extracting the most compelling poetry from Melville's epic novel, so the text of Moby Dick – Rehearsed has extraordinary power and concision," said Rush Rehm, professor of theatre and performance studies and of classics. Rehm is directing the production in Stanford Repertory Theater's 16th summer festival "Orson Welles: Substantial Shadows."

"Welles also understands the crucial role played by Ishmael, both as observer and participant, and he provides the audience with their point of connection with the story. Add to that the powerful ensemble opportunities offered by the realities of life on a whaling ship, and the results make for terrific theater," Rehm notes.

Rehm got hooked on theater after playing an unnamed crewmember in a 1969 production of Moby Dick – Rehearsed. Twenty years later, he directed the play in Atlanta. Based on his experience, Rehm said he knew the play offered a marvelous opportunity to celebrate what the theater can do, but working with such great collaborators on this production delivered something far beyond his wildest expectations.

"The stunning movement and choreographic work of Courtney Walsh, the impeccable soundscape developed by sound designer Michael Keck, the beautiful and complex harmonies in the sea shanties directed by Weston Gaylord, Annie Dauber's bare-bones set that both harnesses and unleashes the actors' physicality and the terrific ensemble energy of the performers, led by Rod Gnapp as Ahab, have made this Moby Dick – Rehearsed one of the finest shows I've been involved with since the founding of Stanford Repertory Theater 16 years ago," Rehm said. "It's a treat to work with great artists on a great play."

There are two weekends left to see SRT's Moby Dick – Rehearsed. Remaining performances are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
in Pigott Theater. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors over 65.

More Wellesian magic

Following Moby Dick – Rehearsed on stage is The War of the Worlds, a recreation of Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' short novel, Aug. 14-24 at the Nitery Theater.

Welles did hundreds of radio shows over many years, playing the voice of The Shadow, for example, as well as writing and producing his own adaptations of literary and dramatic works. His greatest contribution to the art of radio drama was his weekly Mercury Theater on the Air broadcasts, the most notorious of which was the adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which some listeners took to be a real news broadcast about Martians invading the planet.

"We have adapted the original script somewhat, introducing a brief prologue written by Laurence Maslon set in the CBS studio just before the broadcast goes live, giving the audience a sense of the highly fraught world of late 1938, with the depression still very present at home and the Nazi threat growing in Europe. We then move into the broadcast, but we have some wonderful surprises for the audience at the end!" Rehm said.

Festival films and symposium

In addition to two stage productions, SRT is presenting a free film series on Welles, a symposium exploring Welles and Melville, and a Continuing Studies course on Welles and his sources.

The film series explores Welles' contributions to cinema as screenwriter, producer, director, actor and independent producer. Stanford faculty and guests introduce each film directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. Remaining films in the series, through Aug. 18, are Chimes at Midnight (Aug. 4) and The Trial (Aug. 11), as well as The Third Man, with an introduction by Tobias Wolff, professor of English, directed by the great British director Carol Reed and based on a short novel by Graham Greene, in which Welles creates the Harry Lime character, whom he later made popular on the radio (Aug. 18).

Calling out two film highlights, Rehm said, "Welles' performance of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight marks, I think, his greatest acting on film, a role he was born to play. And his performance in The Third Man, a truly great film, epitomizes the cheery, sardonic, brilliant and soulless character that we cannot help but fall for, until we get into those sewers!"

As in past summers, the 2014 Stanford Repertory Theater's summer festival includes a community symposium. "Transformative Stages – Sea Change in Welles and Melville" takes place Saturday, Aug. 2, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., in Pigott Theater. The keynote speaker is Professor Steve Vineberg, film critic for The Three Penny Review and Critics at Large and the author of several books on American cinema. Other symposium contributors include Stanford Professor Emerita Alice Rayner (Drama) and Associate Professor Emeritus William Eddelman (Design and Theater History), Professor Samuel Otter (Department of English, University of California-Berkeley), SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm and SRT company members Rod Gnapp, Peter Ruocco, Courtney Walsh and Tom Freeland.

The symposium also features a live performance of Now You See It (Now You Don't), written by Maslon and starring Harry Ford as a young Orson Welles, and scenes from the dramatic adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd. Registration is $90 and includes lunch.

"Welles was a creative genius, prolific and multitalented. I wanted to do a festival celebrating his work because a whole generation of Americans knows little about this titanic American artist. I don't know any other theater company that has done a festival that looks at Welles as playwright, screenwriter, theater director, actor, filmmaker, radio dramatist," Rehm said.

Noemi Berkowitz, Stanford Repertory Theater: [email protected]

Robin Wander, Stanford University Communications: (650) 724-6184, [email protected]