|John Kuntz at rest as The Whale. Photos: Craig Bailey.|
It's hard for actors to believe this - or even understand it - but great acting alone doesn't make for great theatre. In short bursts, yes, it seems as if theatre boils down to acting; but when you're subjected to well over two hours of thoughtfully restrained, poised-but-ultimately-pointless emoting - as one is at SpeakEasy Stage's current production of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale - one is forced to admit that great acting alone isn't enough, not over the long haul.
And of course great direction isn't enough, either - but I have to point out, we don't actually get any great direction at The Whale. I know - a shocking claim, given the show is helmed by David R. Gammons, whose work long ago won various official Seals of Approval; but the sad fact is, the local commentariat has always had trouble teasing apart great acting from great directing. And Mr. Gammons certainly hires great actors - indeed, he casts superbly from the local talent pool. He listens to them and supports them in rehearsal, too (and you can see on Facebook that they give all that love back in spades). So they reliably deliver, minute-to-minute.
But he doesn't really direct them. Over and over again Gammons serves up performances that are highly polished, and even deeply felt, but fail to grapple with the problems of the play at hand (be it Blackbird, Red, or Medea). In fact, I haven't seen him successfully interpret a play since - well, honestly, I've never seen him successfully interpret a play (although his breakout version of Titus Andronicus came close). His directorial strategy is based on shock (although the shocks are highly aesthetized), and so instead of interpreting his text, he fastens on its transgressive aspects, pumps them up with striking images (he has a designer's eye), and then sprinkles expressionist lighting and sound over the whole montage. Gammons stages plays, he doesn't direct them. And the actors, though fully supported, are basically left to their own devices; they often do interesting and affecting things - which makes them very happy - but these things are quite often irrelevant to the play they're actually in.
Although with The Whale, Gammons could almost be forgiven these failings, because - well - who ever said this was a good play in the first place? I'm not sure. Perhaps the development community just coughed it up as a response to the nation's obesity crisis. We need a play about a fat guy - oh thank God, here's one! And its author, Samuel D. Hunter, could not be more familiar to the development crowd - he has actually earned three different degrees in playwriting - at NYU, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Juilliard. And trust me, any guy who does time in three different writer's workshops gets to write an important play, no matter what.
Hence, I suppose, The Whale. Topical theme, teacher's pet, and voilà! Too bad it actually isn't very good. It is, instead, very serious - which is hardly the same thing, but which many critics accept as a substitute. It's also, to be fair, highly wrought - only it's wrought as metaphor, not drama.
I'll elaborate on that in a minute. In the meantime, however The Whale swam our way, it basically put David Gammons in clover, because his patented shock tactic could simply be the title character himself - the 600-pound Charlie, who is not only obese but also gay (two victims in one!), and who is literally eating himself to death, after the suicide of his boyfriend, somewhere in the hinterlands of Idaho (the playwright's home state).
Not that Gammons went out and found an actual 600-pound actor to play Charlie. Of course not. No, Gammons has instead asked the normal-sized John Kuntz to don a humongous fat suit and facial prosthesis for the part. And Kuntz works hard, and clearly that fat suit is hell - still, he ends up spinning the wheels of his talent much of the time, and Gammons is little help. This is where my earlier remark about metaphor comes in. Because Samuel D. Hunter isn't really interested in why people eat themselves into a state like this, and The Whale tells us next to nothing about the obesity epidemic. Surprisingly enough, the play is actually about gay religious guilt and literary exegesis. I think. (Work with me here.)
For it seems Charlie is haunted by memories of his ex, who actually starved himself to death over his rejection by the Mormon Church; we eventually learn his decline was sparked by a sermon on the prophet Jonah, who was famously swallowed by a whale as punishment for denying his destiny (he of course eventually repented and went on to save Nineveh). A sermon on Jonah is also a key episode in Melville's Moby-Dick, which is also about a whale - and which Charlie (who you could argue has been swallowed by a cetacean himself) is teaching online. What's more, his favorite paper on Melville's masterpiece - which he reads over and over in times of crisis - was by his own long-abandoned daughter, whom he is currently chasing as avidly as Ahab did Moby.
Now that's a whale-load of metaphor right there. And I have no idea what it all means.
So it helps, I suppose, that the correspondences between Charlie's life and Moby-Dick keep getting more and more complicated; Hunter spins them, in fact, until his finale. This gives him something to "playwrite" about, I guess, because there's really no dramatic action. After all, Charlie can barely move - a trip to the john takes ten laborious minutes - so "action" per se is out of the question. People have to come to him, and all they do is ask him why he's killing himself (as we listen to his heart thundering its last beats on the soundtrack). This, of course, is the crux of the play: why is Charlie killing himself? And the preposterous answer seems to be that he's trying to enact a metaphor.
Because as if the previous literary hints weren't enough, Charlie's daughter Ellie arrives toting yet MORE literary baggage. Indeed, we begin to wonder if she, rather than Charlie, actually represents Moby-Dick, because honestly, she's such a dick. Mean-spirited and venomous over her abandonment, she seems to be auditioning for "The Bad Seed" from the moment she appears, and Charlie admits he is most absorbed in the question of whether or not she's actually evil. I'm not kidding. Of course whether or not "the white whale" is evil is also a central concern of Melville's novel. But then Ahab never considered leaving his entire estate to Moby-Dick. Which is precisely, we learn, what Charlie has decided to do in regards to his daughter. Even though he thinks she may be evil.
Can I just say something out loud here? NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE. People eating themselves to death because their partners starved themselves to death, people leaving all their money to children on the off-chance they're not evil incarnate - I'm sorry, but in dramatic terms, The Whale is what once came out of the business end of Moby-Dick. And it's too bad, because around the edges of his play, Hunter sketches some interesting characters, with more than a few intriguing conflicts. Charlie is tended, for instance, by Liz (the talented Georgia Lyman) a nurse who administers first aid and meatball subs in about equal measure. When we learn that Liz is also the sister of Charlie's deceased lover - and so may be trying to save and kill Charlie at the same time - the scene suddenly crackles with a theatrical charge. But Hunter doesn't seem to know how to tap into that dramatic juice. Likewise when Maureen Keiller arrives as Charlie's ex, a dozen emotional questions suddenly hang pregnantly in the air. None of which are answered by Keiller's eloquent silence. Even newcomer Josephine Ellwood throws off a few sympathetic sparks as nasty young Ellie (which immediately flicker out). But another fresh face, Ryan O'Connor, isn't so lucky - he manages far less with the thankless role of the Mormon missionary who understands as little as we do about why he keeps hanging around.
The thing is, the behavior of all these characters is clearly subordinate to their creator's lit-crit ambitions. Which is why Kuntz can only reach out with rather generic gentleness to each one of them in turn; he's only tagging various points on a metaphoric grid. That the actors manage to hold our attention at all given these constraints is a testament to their talent; but it must also be said they don't always succeed in holding us for long. Without David Remedios' assaultive sound design (heartbeats, flatulence, whale song, and the occasional gastric gurgle) I would have nodded off halfway through.
And honestly, what is at the bottom of this whole muddled mandala of signifiers? Is Hunter's point that Charlie's homosexuality somehow counts as a "denial" of God - like Jonah's (or Ahab's)? Or is it that Charlie himself tragically believes such tripe, even if it isn't true? Well, if so - just say that, okay? And spare us the whale song and the flashing lights. I admit the idea of gay self-hatred can be a hard sell these days - and the Mormons are mostly punchlines rather than players on the East Coast - but still, come out of the literary closet and write a scene about that, Mr. Hunter. It would be controversial, but at least it would be drama rather than deconstruction. I was unsurprised to learn that the playwright himself had spent time teaching novels online, much as Charlie does in his play. Because clearly he is unconsciously doing much the same thing with The Whale - he's trying to prod us into writing a mental essay about Moby-Dick while nodding in encouragement from behind the curtain. Indeed, SpeakEasy's publicity asserts that Hunter discovered "writing a good play and writing a good essay are very similar." And - oh, dear; I'm sorry, but I think he may be mistaken about that.