Review: Theater Triebewerk’s ‘Moby Dick’ at The Kennedy Center

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A big theatrical story created on a small space is no easy matter. For the too-short stay of Moby Dick at the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences, it was accurate what the Kennedy Center staff suggested about the Theater Triebewerk‘s imaginative, musically-tinged original take on Herman Melville’s classic read Moby Dick:

You’ve never seen this Herman Melville classic shared in this particular way before. Whether you’re a young person hearing this story for the first time, or an adult fan who has read the book countless times, we guarantee this stage adaptation will surprise (and satisfy) you!

The deliberately paced power of the production may have been aimed at children,but it was a vivid theatrical production that any adult even without children as an excuse to see the production will find engrossing. Live music on stage, plenty of theatrical elements and skilled acting combine let the imagination soar to the South Seas on an early 19th century whaling ship on an intense journey to hunt whales with a crew led by a fearful captain.

Uwe Schade, Erik Schaeffler, und Heino Sellh. © Oliver Fantitsch, PF 201723, 20207 HH.
Uwe Schade, Erik Schaeffler, and Heino Sellh. © Oliver Fantitsch.

For those familiar with Moby Dick, the Theater Treibewerk from Germany production is a compact dramatic vision of the lengthy Melville novel from the moment the words Call Me Ishmael are intoned. For those unfamiliar with Moby Dick it may well be a theatrical doorway to reading the book even if not a summertime school reading requirement.

The Theater Triebwerk folk transformed Melville’s Moby Dick into a one-act play by reducing the number of charters down to about ten and performed by three actors. The novel’s essence remains intact as the audience follows young sailor Ishmael, First Mate Starbuck, harpooner Queequwet, Second Mate Stubb, Captain Ahab, with the creaking whaling ship Pequod itself along with the legendary great white whale Moby Dick. All of the elements for a thoroughly risky journey that will resonate in their own way no matter what an audience member’s age.

The three actors on stage were Heino Sellhorn, Uwe Schade, and Roland Peck.  Each plays multiple characters well differentiated by using a range of costumes, hats, voices, simple objects, facial gestures and the way each moves about the stage. Artfully accomplished sound effects add plenty of verve and unease to the production including the echoing sound of a wooden leg walking on a wooden ship.

As examples, Peck plays both Ishmael and Captain Ahab as well as narrates. Sellhorn and Schade not only play several characters but composed the music and play instruments such as the double bass and the cello on stage. Their music adds key emotions and plenty of mood to the production.

Visual imagery was created by a few well-placed objects from the mind of Set Designer Zazie Knepper with Technical Director Holger Duwe. The set included a well-stocked steamer trunk, three tall metal frames that easily took on the appearance of a sailing ship’s masts, an often-sounded ship’s bell, a lantern and a few other pieces pivotally placed here and then on stage.

So, how did this production of Moby Dick find its way to the Kennedy Center?  This information is from the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences staff:

The Kennedy Center had actually presented Theater Triebwerk ten or more years ago to much success and acclaim. Some of our KCTYA staff had also seen the show when it toured New York City around that same time. When we heard that they were remounting Moby Dick for another North America tour, we got in touch with their agent right away about having them back for a whole new generation of audiences. Ever since we saw the show a decade ago, this simple, elegant adaptation of Moby Dick has served as an excellent example of re-conceiving a seemingly-unproducable classic for the stage.

Mody Dick was an exciting, informative, and theatrical production for anyone interested in the power of theater to enthrall. The Theater Triebwerk production combined a great classic story, an inventive adaptation with original music and skilled actors, all melded together to illuminate a dangerous journey, power struggles between a vengeful Captain Ahab and his ship’s crew, and the ultimate concept that thoughtless vengeance can lead to unexpectedly extreme results.

For those who bring their children to see the show, it should wonderfully lead to many a question about life 200 years ago and what its storyline still means today in these days of the connectivity of digital media and social networking.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission

Moby Dick was performed on Saturday, April 23, and Sunday, April 24, 2016 at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. at The Kennedy Center-2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For more information about Theater for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center, go to their website.

 Note: Here is more information on The Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences.

Note:  There was an informative Cluesheet performance guide provided at the performance I attended. I watched and heard many parents reading and chatting about the Cluesheet information with their children. The ushers at the performance I attended were also very helpful to families and children even locating cushions for children who might need them. The show is recommended for children 7 years-old and up.