Whale's tale

Laurie Anderson really doesn't like to make broad statements. But her semi-musical, quasi-theatrical, demi-technological performance art not only involves so many grand forms, it also deals with issues so big--technology, communication, politics, human frailty--that you frequently forget that these are the broad issues in your life as well. Onstage, the tiny, spiky-haired Anderson--her wondrous whisper of a voice both comforting and needling--sometimes seems like the little man behind the wizard in Oz, curtain drawn up: The billboard-size video images and electronic sonic-boom sounds of her shows are produced by Anderson at the control board, proudly displaying herself as the ultimate manipulator of technology.

If all goes well, the world premiere (and exclusive Southwest performances) of Anderson's Moby Dick will be theater's best revenge. During the 20th century, many people deserted live theater for movies and TV. Anderson's shows take those technologies back and prove they can be crumpled down to fit inside the palms of actors and audiences. They even get tossed back and forth like wadded-up paper in the unruly classroom of her shows. The supremacy of the stage--of the live individual--is affirmed.

Speaking of classroom, you might have been tortured there the last time you read Herman Melville's 1851 epic about Ahab and his thing for a big, slippery mammal. There are long, long technical passages about sailing techniques and how to extract sperm from whales (Melville was trained as a lawyer, and legendary rep aside, he sometimes wrote like he was drafting an appellate brief). Anderson has tried to overcome some of that literary legalese by reshaping the book on her own terms.

"About 90 percent of the writing [in her stage version of Moby Dick] is mine," says Anderson in that soft, conquering voice. "This will be a very strange piece, hopefully in the way the book is very strange. It goes from a straight narrative into long speculations of this and that: the night sky, polar bears, what people want. All the different voices don't reside in the characters, though. It's Melville himself for most of the time. And he also talks about Spinoza, Noah, Job, Jonah; they are as much on that ship as Queequeg [one of the harpooners]. I'm trying to keep it in the spirit of that--of these ghostly manifestations--instead of just, 'Let's adapt it for the stage, and you'll play Ahab, and I'll play Ishmael.'"

Moby Dick marks Anderson's debut as a stage director--she has never before used other actors to play multiple roles, as she will do here. She resists making wry comparisons between directing a person and directing, say, a digital receiver or a synthesized violin.

"It's totally different," she insists. "And very new for me. I've only ever worked with musicians before. When I went into rehearsals for this thing, I pitched the actors' performances in a very abstract direction. Then one of the actors started doing some of the text, and he just became Captain Ahab, stepped right out of the 19th century. He wrenched it back in a human direction. I may have learned more from the actors than they learned from me."

Learning exactly what you want out of life is an itching, driving theme of Moby Dick. On a practical level, Herman Melville was greatly disturbed by slavery and industrialization in America during his lifetime. As a voracious reader, he was obsessed with Shakespeare and the Bible. All these forces combined into a push-and-pull duet of confinement and freedom, search and stability. And not just in the book, but in Melville's consciousness as an American. Laurie Anderson is that rarest of artists--a woman who, along with many criticisms, has many good things to say about the country where she was born.

"In many ways, we're very similar to the way we were 150 years ago," Anderson remarks. "We're technophiles; we love machines and finding out how things work. We're also very garrulous, we like to talk, and we like to work. What's most interesting to me is that Americans aren't embarrassed to admit that we're all looking for something, and when things don't measure up to what we believe, we continue to look. Transcendentalism is still very alive in America. With capitalism and technology, we always ask, 'Is this enough?' And that asks another question: If you cease believing in what makes you go, how do you go on? And what if your work itself begins to question why you're doing it, as Ahab's does? Moby Dick is a series of questions about why we're here and what we're going for."

Anderson also makes a rather surprising observation about the second-most famous sea story ever told (Jonah probably got there before Ishmael). While admitting that the book isn't strong on characterization, she insists that, scattered among the far-flung passages of philosophy and how-to details, there are spots where it's "sexy"--in a decidedly homoerotic way. Melville's sexuality has long been the subject of speculation among scholars. Maybe it's that scene where frolicking, bare-chested sailors rub whale sperm all over each other on the ship deck. Or it could be all those passionate letters Melville sent to mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne that include statements like "Your New England roots have penetrated the hot Southern soil of my soul."

"At one point, a sailor [in Moby Dick] suggests they should dress up inside the cassock [the enormous penis of the whale], and they would look like a priest," she laughs. "And you do a double take: 'What?' Queequeg and another character also lie in bed together and get to know each other through touch. They don't exchange words, but they do exchange vows. And then you get another 100 pages about what the best kind of harpoon to use is and why. Talk about frustrating."

Ultimately, Anderson wants you to view Moby Dick with this kind of fresh, playful curiosity. Her production gets its maiden voyage here in Dallas through the courtesy of TITAS and will play other dates before it gets the featured opening slot at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October. Nonesuch, Anderson's new label at Warner Bros., will release music from the show later this year. Right now, she's hoping the immediacy of the stage--of her actors and herself and her sound, light, and visual effects swirling like the northern lights through SMU's McFarlin Auditorium--will capture the essence of what is diluted by many pages of Melvillian ponderances. But Anderson is also Anderson--unpretentious, nervously curious about how this thing is going to go: "I have zero distance from this right now."

She's developed a new bit of technology that will be debuting here. She calls it a talking stick. It's a wand-shaped device that she will point at places on stage and summon a variety of sounds. She spent a year working on it with a design team, and says that after all the talk about form and function and streamlining and innovating, she hopes it works. But there is also the hope that people won't pay too much attention to it.

"My technology is always just in the interest of telling a story," she insists. "I spend half my life with equipment, learning stuff and trying to master my tools. One of my worst nightmares is that people come to my performances as if they were trade shows. You can go to any trade show and see technology that's fast and cool. I don't want to use these tools as if they were just toys."

On the other hand, Laurie thinks the very visceral Moby Dick, her digital devices, and contemporary U.S. audiences make for a hot threesome: "I think that today, many people's experience of nature is through technology. We watch video of people's wilderness trips more often than we take wilderness trips. How often do you just go outside and sniff the flowers yourself? Moby Dick is a book about the natural force seen through a lot of different lenses. I'm just going to use another set of lenses."

One of those lenses is a very natural, primitive human ritual: theater. Talking about the vitality of live performance, Anderson makes a reference to her last show, Speed of Darkness, a much more stripped-down series of vignettes about everything from working to Star Trek to Moby Dick.

"In that show, I compared technology and life," she remembers. "In the digital world, silence doesn't exist. If something is silent, if it's not receiving information, then the machine shuts off. In a theater, silence can be the most powerful thing. In an expert theatrical situation, it's the air that is charged by the audience, where people review their expectations about...everything. 'What do I think about what this piece is telling me about life?' I hope that Moby Dick works like that, that's it's a dialogue rather than a bunch of presentational monologues."

TITAS presents Moby Dick April 29-May 1 at 8 p.m. Call (214) 528-5576.

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Jimmy Fowler