Beaching "Moby-Dick"

Laurie Anderson offers a chilly, neutered take on Melville's intense, sweaty classic.

Published October 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

While New Yorkers continue battling each other over whether the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is a triumph or a desecration, a real desecration is taking place just down Flatbush Avenue at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: Laurie Anderson's evisceration of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." In a way, Anderson's offense is the opposite of Chris Ofili's: If Ofili's dung-accented attempt to render the Virgin Mary as an accessible figure is too earthy for some, Anderson's "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" is all too reverent. Her free-form evening of music and multimedia riffing is neutered, atomized, lifeless. Melville's novel revels in the sweaty humanity and half-erotic camaraderie aboard a whaling ship; Anderson and her four male performers seem like dazed loners. And where Melville's novel amasses a mind-numbing mountain of facts about whales and whaling to get at some awful, awesome mystery at the heart of life itself, the chilly Laurie Anderson show views
whales as so many big, intelligent killing machines. She barely acknowledges the whaling industry that fueled the early 19th century U.S. economy (and Melville's book).

The coiled, driven, Shakespearean figure at the helm of Melville's Pequod is nowhere to be found. In place of Melville's charismatic monomaniac, Anderson's Captain Ahab (Tom Nelis) is a weedy eccentric. Who would follow this guy on his suicide mission? When Anderson fills a giant screen with images of the gold doubloon that Ahab uses to inspire his men to kill the white whale, Nelis seems like a weirdo coin collector upset over the undervaluation of a favorite Lincoln penny. Anderson seems to have no idea that the book even takes place on a ship, much less a relatively small one. The men are in close, even intimate contact in Melville's version, but you'd never know it from the way Anderson's performers ignore each other. (They're like Giacometti figures, not Melville characters.) When they're onstage together they seem to be dancing solo at some techno-groovy disco. Anderson has left out the great scenes in which living, breathing human beings interact, such as the night at the Spouter Inn, in which Ishmael overcomes his fear and shares a bed with the harpooner Queequeg.

There's some good stuff. The show's opening is promising: The screen shows black-and-white footage of a vast, empty ocean, waves crashing rhythmically. Anderson looks toward it, playing a mournful electric-violin piece that suggests whale songs. The spacious moodiness captures the damp-drizzly-November-in-my-soul atmosphere of the novel's opening pages. Taking individual sentences from the novel and running them across the screen over and over as Anderson intones them, toying with their possible meanings, is also oddly effective. And there's a lot to be said for a multimedia approach to Melville -- Anderson says during the show that she was struck by all the "jump-cuts" in "Moby-Dick," by Melville's refusal to tell the story in a linear way. She really seems to love Melville and to want to find a way inside his sensibility.

But she should have let Melville find a way inside her sensibility. She's not an adaptive or a flexible performer. Her cerebral postmodern dissonance may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at least in performance pieces like her "United States" show she displayed a coherent vision, an aesthetic and intellectual wholeness. Melville would have been touched by her desire to pay homage to "Moby-Dick," but if she'd asked him for advice I think he'd have told her: Gorge on the book, and then let it seep its way into a real Laurie Anderson piece. That's what he did, after all, with his beloved Shakespeare, and look where it got him.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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