Tragedy comes on many levels in Orson Welles' Moby Dick -- Rehearsed, from its backstory of Welles' ongoing multiple attempts to reimagine Mellville's novel to the tale itself. Certainly, if ever there was an ego of a theatrical nature strong enough to match the power of the book, it would have to be Welles'; after all, Charles Foster Kane has a grandiosity matching that of Captain Ahab.
In his adaptation, Welles imagines a theatre company's rehearsal: The performers wear street clothes, and chairs are their only real props. Always the classicist, Welles imbues the play with Shakespearean allusions, going so far as to have a character called The Governor invoke the prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V, asking his audience to imagine much of the piece.
It should be the stuff of theatrical magic, but director Marc Silberschatz's heavy-handed production feels like a theatrical anachronism: a return to a time when bombast was the norm. Loud diatribes from Ahab (played with unwavering fierceness by Seth Duerr) have equal weight, vocally and emotionally, to a sailor yelling "Avast!" Conversely, although theatregoers have been asked to imagine the scene -- thanks to Dana Sterling's shrewd and atmospheric lighting design, it's not difficult -- a soundscape from designer John D. Ivy, used to indicate locale and certain events, often has the unfortunate effect of masking the performers' words, such as when Starbuck (rendered with gentle thoughtfulness by Mickey Ryan) utters the all-important "I disobey my God in obeying him."
As theatregoers strain to hear the text, it's almost possible to miss two of the show's finer performances: David Skigen plays Second Mate Stubb with admirably determined grit, and Shawn Renfro brings subtlety to the role of Queequeg.
Ultimately, though, what this production of Moby Dick -- Rehearsed misses most is the tragedy of Ahab's -- and Welles' -- obsession.
Presented by Twenty Feet Productions
at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, 309 E. 26th St., NYC.
March 8-25. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.