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Nothing Is Ever Just One Thing

NOV 27, 2019

On the massive journey of Moby-Dick with director Rachel Chavkin

Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin returns to the A.R.T. following her productions of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, RoosevElvis, and Three Pianos. Here, she shares reflections on epic storytelling and her inspiration for Moby-Dick in conversation with A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley.

Did you have a connection to Melville’s novel before this project?

It was my mom’s favorite novel. And I remember reading it for the first time as a kid, in a Junior Oxford Illustrated Classics edition. I read the unabridged version for the first time in high school, and I have read it a couple times since.

What made you keep returning?

I mean, each sentence is totally breathtaking. And of course the density of imagery and theme is so thick that each time I read it, the novel means different things to me.

You mentioned on the first day of rehearsal that the form of the novel is idiosyncratic; it’s digressive.

It’s mad! There’s a whole chapter that Melville just decided to write as a play.

How are you thinking about bringing those formal quirks of Melville’s writing to life in this production?

At the beginning of our development process, Dave had the idea to capture Melville’s eclecticism formally—specifically, Melville’s exuberance of form. Melville is so excited about writing, and this show is so excited about theater. The show is told in four parts, and each part is quite stylistically different. We move from a kind of broad storytelling theater in Part I to the whale hunt in Part II, which Dave and I have talked about as a vaudeville. Then Part III is a free-jazz song cycle that tells the story of Pip, who is the youngest character in the book. And Part IV moves through much grittier storytelling into a confrontation of existential despair.

What can you tell us about the audience experience of the piece?

I think the audience’s experience is going to be really eclectic. I experience the show as alternately profoundly funny and exuberant (in terms of theatricality and epic messiness), and other parts are devastating. There’s a song in Part IV that, since it was written, I haven’t been able to listen to without crying.

You mention messiness; in many ways, Melville has written a book about mess—the messiness of whaling, of Ahab’s loneliness, of American history. How are you thinking about that messiness in terms of the staging?

There’s been a lot written about this in different Melville biographies: in some ways, he was inventing what it means to be an American writer, versus a descendant of British writers living in America. His formal explosiveness, the vastness of the ambition of the novel on an intellectual level, all have helped to define what an American novel could be—and it’s not polite. There’s a bullishness to the voice that will definitely be expressed in the production, including in Mimi Lien’s scenic design, which is ambitious.

Melville was writing this story in 1850, when the country was on the brink of the Civil War. What made you excited as a theatermaker and a storyteller to delve into this story now?

Well, the country is obviously divided again. But also, I’m not convinced it has ever not been. Trump is not new. He’s just the most gross, shameless manifestation of a strand of our country that has always been there. In some ways now, we are just sitting with this awfulness much more publicly. And in contrast to our President, who is a frighteningly and almost disappointingly simplistic thug, it’s quite extraordinary to be working on this piece and to have a villain who is as complex and sad as Ahab.

When did you start developing the piece?

We first started talking about it in 2013. We presented the first part that Dave wrote—Section III, the Pip section—in a concert in the spring of 2014. So the show was in development long before the 2016 election; it is in no way a reaction to Trump. It’s just a terrible alignment.

Director Rachel Chavkin works with actors in rehearsal for Moby-Dick.

What can you tell us about the styles of music and the role of music in this show?

This show is not like Comet in that the whole show is not musicalized. But there is certainly a lot of music, and, like so much of Dave’s compositions, the music is really eclectic. Jazz is a huge part of the score, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. Jazz is one of the great American art forms, so that feels very fitting for this piece.

We should also mention the puppets. What role will puppetry play in depicting the play’s oceanic world?

There’s something about puppetry that feels handmade, and kind of messy. In Part I, we use a form of puppetry called a “cranky.” I encountered it as an old American art form, but I suspect it goes back much further than this country. It was very clear to us from the beginning that there didn’t want to be any video design in the show, because we are really interested in the sense of nineteenth century Americana sitting alongside a twenty-first century sensibility. So the puppets, as handicrafts, are a core part of that. And they’re really fun, too.

A.R.T. audiences last saw your work in RoosevElvis and Great Comet, which are both epic in different ways: they travel, with the audience, through multiple spaces and time periods. Some audience members may also have seen your production of Hadestown, which is also a journey through time. What attracts you, as a director, to these multi-era epics?

I find it most interesting when different layers of meaning are layered on top of each other. Nothing is ever just one thing. That, in and of itself, brings an epic quality. I love the sense of a massive journey being taken, because I want art to have those kinds of epic ambitions. But for me, epic doesn’t necessarily mean scale of production, so much as the scale of the interior journey, which can be refracted in very large themes.

What can you tell us about your creative team on this show?

It’s quite a creative team. First, some members of the Comet team have reunited, which is a delight: Bradley King, our lighting designer, and scenic designer Mimi Lien. On the flip side, costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo and I have worked together in the theater company the TEAM, and she also does a lot of films; this is our first musical together. Hidenori Nakajo, our sound designer, designed Dave’s show Octet and knocked it out of the park. And Eric Avery, our puppet designer, worked with Mimi on Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music. So I was really thrilled to have an opportunity to work with them all on this project. Working with Chanel DaSilva, our choreographer, has also been a delight—one of my favorite first-time collaborations. She’s been able to manifest this wild blend of nineteenth century and twenty-first century vocabulary in a way that is absolutely in step with the eclecticism and muscle of Dave’s score. And her passion for the mission of using this “Great American Novel” to think about America today has been quite inspiring.

Director Rachel Chavkin works with the company on a scene in rehearsal for Moby-Dick.

Interview by A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley

Image Credits
Director Rachel Chavkin works with actors in rehearsal for Moby-Dick: Maria Baranova
Director Rachel Chavkin works with the company on a scene in rehearsal for Moby-Dick: Maria Baranova

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