Going Nowhere

by Cary M. Mazer

Songs & Stories from Moby Dick

Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., through May 23, 215-569-9700

In several ways, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is an ideal choice of material for composer/performance artist Laurie Anderson. For one thing, it's filled with seemingly pointless meanderings and digressions: dissertations about the sea, whale anatomy and navigation; instruction manuals about harpooning, butchering whales and rendering blubber; and philosophical ruminations about "the whiteness of the whale," and about the earth, the sea, the stars and the cosmos. And second, as long as the Pequod zigzags across the ocean in search of Moby Dick, with Captain Ahab in his cabin and Ishmael in the crow's nest, it doesn't actually have to go anywhere in particular.

Songs & Stories from Moby Dick, in its debut performances at the Prince Music Theater, is the first Anderson piece to be based on someone else's narrative materials, and the first that uses other singer/actors in addition to herself. There are some advantages to this: You can blame some (but not all) of the semi-poetry and ponderous philosophical pronouncements on Melville; and there's more to look at during the performance than just Anderson, with her electronic violin, smugly commenting with po-mo ironic detachment on her material and on her own performance.

For Laurie Anderson fans, there are still the electronically altered voices (not just for Anderson, but for some of her fellow performers), and some nifty new musical instruments (though the "talking stick," for which half a dozen technicians are credited in the program, isn't all that impressive). Anderson still pulls out of the action occasionally to provide her own mini-lectures, digressions and commentaries (including a plot synopsis of the 1926 film of Moby Dick with John Barrymore, by way of introducing a song that purportedly was sung on the soundtrack, as if silent films had soundtracks). And a few of the performers have taken on Anderson's ironic smugness: Early on, Tom Nelis, as Ahab, announces "OK, I'll be honest with you: I never read the book… it's too big."


Early on, the actor playing Ahab announces "OK, I'll be honest with you: I never read the book, it's too big."


For all that, when Anderson finds inspiration in an image, incident or phrase in Melville's novel, the songs she builds from them can be quite wonderful: Queequeg (Anthony Turner) reminisces about his home island to a calypso beat; Ishmael (Price Waldman) sings from the crow's nest of his fears of falling asleep, dropping into the sea and falling through a hole in the world; Pip the cabin boy (Anderson), fallen overboard, swirls about in the great vortex; and Ahab, ordering the ship's carpenter to make him a new leg, asks him to "make me a mechanical man."

But every time something really compelling seems to be happening, some new production gimmick is introduced (a harpoon that lights up like a neon tube, a stovepipe hat that starts smoking like a stovepipe, a cook wearing a chef's toque); or else the stage-filling slides, films and computer-generated animation projected onto James Schuette's set (visuals credited variously to Anderson, Christopher Kondek, Bob Bielecki and Daniel Hartnett), while visually impressive, turn out to be banal or just plain silly.

Toward the end of the piece, Anderson quotes from Melville's anxious letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wondering why his friend doesn't seem to like the manuscript he sent him, and cites the anxiety of Melville's publisher about the fact that, after a few hundred pages, the novel doesn't seem to be heading anywhere in particular and the great white whale has still not made an appearance.

Unlike Melville, Anderson is too coolly detached to care if we like her piece or not. And, after more than two-and-a-half hours of it, a narrator quickly dispenses with the plot, describes in a few lines how Moby Dick drags Ahab down to the depths and sinks the Pequod, and the performance just ends.

The lighting (lots of greens and oranges) is by Michael Chybowski. And the "staging co-direction" is by Anne Bogart (her fellow "co-" is uncredited).