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Syracuse Stage opens season with “Moby Dick”

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The playwright who adapted “Mody Dick” for stage cast a wide net to capture theatrical elements that bring to life the classic tale’s sense of struggle.

Among those elements are 18 sea chanteys.

“Music is such a wonderfully creative device, especially in the theater, where it gives us an opportunity to build the action,” playwright Julian Rad said.

Mr. Rad’s adaptation of “Moby Dick” premiered in 2003 in New York City. It received critical acclaim, praised for its spare yet faithful treatment of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. Mr. Rad’s “Moby Dick” was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, an award typically reserved only for Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Ms. Rad’s “Moby Dick” was originally an “off-off Broadway” production. Such shows are in New York City theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

Syracuse Stage’s “Moby Dick” kicks off its 40th season. “Moby Dick” opened Wednesday and runs through Nov. 14. The show is directed by Peter Amster, whose previous Syracuse Stage credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” “This Wonderful Life” and “The Fantasticks.”

Mr. Amster believes it is the play’s music — along with lighting, sound and movement — that will help to convey “the incomprehensibly huge scale of the events of this story.”

“There is also the task of trying to give an audience a visceral sense of the strenuous activity that is necessary to operate a whaling vessel — hauling, managing sails, raising anchors, climbing rope ladders, to name a few, without the real equipment and rigging needed to carry out these gestures,” Mr. Amster said in a press release.

The director added that a “theatrically heightened language of movement” had to be developed. He hopes these “large theatrical gestures” will trigger the audience’s imagination.

In the play, as in the novel, a sailor called Ishmael learns of Capt. Ahab’s desire to seek revenge upon a white sperm whale named Moby Dick, which destroyed the captain’s boat and bit off his leg in a previous encounter. Capt. Ahab is relentless in his pursuit, even at the expense of the sailors’ safety, threatening destruction for everyone onboard. The captain’s first mate, Starbuck, is alone in questioning the captain’s motives.

Mr. Rad built the story’s narrative around Starbuck.

“‘Moby Dick’ always spoke to me in a deep and personal way — the struggle of many of the elements, the struggle that Starbuck goes through trying to be a moral man surrounded by all sorts of immorality, the ideas of man versus nature, man versus God, man versus himself,” he said.

“Julian Rad’s script is a miracle of compression,” Mr. Amster said.

The role of Starbuck is played by Ithaca resident David Studwell, who appeared previously at Syracuse Stage as professor Fritz Bhaer in “Little Women” and El Gallo in “The Fantasticks.” Capt. Ahab is played by Chicago-based actor Kurt Ehrmann, who has worked with Steppenwolf Theatre and Goodman Theatre Company. Erik Hellman, who will perform as Ishmael, is also a Chicago-based actor and has appeared with Steppenwolf Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Historical exhibit

There will be a lobby exhibit presented by the Onondaga County Historical Society during the play’s run in Archbold Theatre. “Discovering Hidden Stories of Syracuse ... Tied to American Whaling,” created by Onondaga County Historical Association, depicts Syracuse in the early 1850s, at the time Herman Melville’s whaling novel, “Moby Dick,” was first published. The exhibit covers the history of the use of whale oil in 19th century Syracuse homes and industry, the story of fugitive slave Enoch Reed with ties to Syracuse, the historic “Jerry Rescue” and the tragic tale of Burr Burton, a young whaler from Syracuse.

The details
WHAT: ‘Moby Dick’ opens 40th season of Syracuse Stage.
WHEN: The “play with music” opened Wednesday and runs through Nov. 4 at Syracuse Stage, Archbold Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St.
Show times: 3 and 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17-18, 8 p.m. Oct. 19, 3 and 8 p.m. Oct. 20, 2 p.m. Oct. 21, 2 p.m. Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, 8 p.m. Oct. 26, 3 and 8 p.m. Oct. 27, 2 and 7 p.m. Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30-31, 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 3 and 8 p.m. Nov. 2, and 2 p.m. Nov. 4.
COST: Tickets range from $30 to $51 for adults but $30 for those age 40 and under and $18 for those age 18 and under.
For ticket information, contact Syracuse Stage at 443-3275 or online at www.syracusestage.org.
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