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Spoleto Festival USA

Review: Laurie Anderson's 'Moby' -- the big blubber

Anderson plays a Talking Stick, her newly developed electronic instrument, in her "Moby-Dick"-inspired production.

Web posted on:
Friday, June 04, 1999 2:20:49 PM EST

By Porter Anderson
CNN Interactive Arts Critic

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- "I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive."

Believe her.

Laurie Anderson's aesthetics are being chewed up by her career-long pursuit of electronic enhancement on stage.

It's in her eloquent, engaging program notes for "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" that you find this reference to ambition and who's edible. And just minutes into the production -- in its Spoleto Festival USA presentation sponsored by AT&T -- it's clear that Anderson's proven sense for performance-artistry now is nipping at the toes of those red shoes she wears.

"Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" is scheduled to play New York in October. It's co-produced in part by Harvey Lichtenstein's fine program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM mounts the Next Wave Festival each fall. Anderson enjoys a rightful, loyal following in New York. She's a longtime favorite of the off-Broadway set.

But if her "Moby Dick" beaches itself in Gotham as it did on Thursday night at the Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston, there could be a notable ebbing of the tide.

Here are the main problems: (1) At two hours, 40 minutes, the piece runs almost twice as long as the material justifies. (2) The stage design by Christopher Kondek (visuals), Michael Chybowski (lighting) and James Schuette (set) is a repetitive leviathan in its own right. (3) And Miles Green and Bob Bielecki have designed the show's sound and electronics so that fully 50 percent of the spoken words -- and there are many -- are unintelligible.

'Moby' and mo' 'Moby'

The strongest component of Anderson's interpretation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel has nothing to do with the book: It's her music. The best is her solo violin work, the voice of the Whale. As so many times in the past, she uses electronic manipulation to submerge her listeners in a deep bath of gutsy, uneasy harmonies, many of them shudderingly dissonant, questioning, vulnerable.

We also get to hear her at times on what she calls her Talking Stick, a newly developed wireless sound sampler. At one point, she holds it like a shoulder rocket launcher -- or a harpoon gun -- and strokes its barrel to generate the sounds of a chanting choir, then a string ensemble.

But her compositions for the three men who join her as players in "Moby" are heavy, strident affairs. One is loosely based on Melville's Chapter 103, "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton"; another on the book's sequence about the ship's carpenter; an early one on Father Mapple's sermon.

Anderson, true to form, makes no pretense of following these segments slavishly. Her notes say only about 10 percent of the show's text is Melville's. She orders her scenes according to her interests. All this is fine. All this is Anderson.

But big sections of these and other vignettes in this fatty pageant can't be understood. Voices are so profoundly distorted that whole pages of text aren't comprehensible out in the house. At intermission and again after the show Thursday, audience members were complaining -- in loud and easily understood voices -- that they simply weren't getting the words.

Worthy shipmates

Two bright spots are the staging by Anne Bogart and the male-lead work by Tom Nelis.

Bogart is the founder, with Tadashi Suzuki, of the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI). Her stage work "The Medium" still is landmark of movement-and-text theater, cerebral yet heartbreaking. In March, Bogart premiered her new "Cabin Pressure" at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Here, she serves as a co-director to Anderson, responsible for most of the staging. Bogart's love of symmetry and ensemble is a plus in 'Moby.' She handily echoes a lot of the novel's formality in her shipboard-swaying stage pictures.

Nelis, the actor who played Marshall McLuhan in Bogart's "The Medium," is along this time to play several roles. His work as Ahab the whale hunter becomes the most dependable, articulate element of the performance.

Nelis is joined with less success by Anthony Turner and Price Waldman. Neither is able to achieve much presence, each playing several characters who are largely indistinguishable. Costume designer Susan Hilferty puts Nelis, Turner and Waldman into fantastically tall stovepipe hats, one of them smoking.

But costume and stage the group as you might, the male trio is as dwarfed by the set as is Skúli Sverrisson. He joins Anderson, an on-stage musician, providing the show's fabulous, ivory-splintering bass. You worry this could be the sound of the show being ground to bits between giant techno-molars.

Desktop scenic design

Are you familiar with the suites of display elements that a Windows 95 or Windows 98 program offers as "themed" desktop displays on a computer screen? You can choose one themed on Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Your screen background is a collage of his drawings, your program icons have a coordinated look to them, your screen saver features some of Leonardo's inventions.

In Anderson's "Moby Dick," Kondek, Chybowski and Schuette have done something so similar that you worry Bill Gates may be listed somewhere as an underwriter. The show uses a single, wide, raised platform upstage, a looming split-screen cyclorama at the back and a round "moon" screen overhead, stage-right -- all with matching projections and lighting.

The first time you see all this operate, it's wonderful. Anderson appears on the platform playing those fantastic Whale sounds on her violin before a mirror-imaged waves-on-the-beach projection. She looks about the size of a cockleshell. Breathtaking.

But as the night wears on? Clever bookshelf images turn up on each element of the set for a library scene. Spinal cords and skulls are projected for that anatomy-lesson sequence. Some animated cartoon projections go loping across the assembly as night-sky in constellations.

When we hear Anderson's long "Boy overboard" lament on the cabin boy Pip, there are bookend reef-and-eddies projections. A saltwater aquarium comes to mind.

And where does this long voyage of expensive, garbled theater take us? Back to Melville. By the time Anderson has Nelis finally tell us the end of the tale, he sticks close to the author's lines. "The ship? Great God, where is the ship?"

After all has been oversaid and overdone, the audience is left listening to a bit of "Moby-Dick" read aloud. The dreaded original has surfaced, unbeaten.

Going down with the ship

Make no mistake: These problems have nothing to do with sloppiness or shoddy preparation. Anderson has researched her material for years; brought her powerful image-vocabulary to bear on it; and performs it in her usual earnest, clean, accomplished style.

But it needs cuts so it doesn't sink under its own weight. It needs technical restraint so its effects don't drown its words.

And it needs heart. Performance art too easily can intellectualize material, setting work adrift without emotion. It's happened this time. You feel only for the Whale here, mostly in a little lecture about ocean-noise pollution jamming today's whale communications.

This is all salvageable. "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" can be honed down to something compelling, concise and comprehensible.

Laurie Anderson is too good not to finish the job she's started. Until she does, nobody's going to call her Ishmael.

"Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," by Laurie Anderson. June 3 and 4, 8 p.m. Gaillard Auditorium at Calhoun Street and Anson Street, Charleston. Tickets $10, $20, $30, $45. Information (843) 723-0402.

Review: Genty's 'Dédale' -- loving the labyrinth
June 2, 1999
Spoleto Festival USA: On stage and in the black
May 20, 1999
Patrick Stewart takes on whale of a role
March 12, 1998

Official Laurie Anderson site
Spoleto Festival USA 1999
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