For several long moments at the beginning of “Moby Dick,’’ Conor Lovett stands motionless, shrouded in darkness, listening intently to the mournful sounds produced by a fiddle player who shares the stage with him.
When Lovett finally steps into the light, he speaks three words that constitute one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.’’
Lovett’s Ishmael appears hesitant, even slightly abashed, as if he feels unworthy to be the bearer of such a momentous tale, or is still so haunted by the memories locked inside him that he’s reluctant to give them voice, to tell his story.
But tell it he proceeds to do, casting a considerable spell in the process. In a production by Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland that will run through Saturday at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Paramount Center, Lovett delivers a performance that illustrates the power of storytelling - at least when it’s done as well as it is here - to enlist an audience for a journey of the imagination.
Under the direction of Judy Hegarty Lovett, who is married to the actor and adapted the novel with him, the production could scarcely be sparer. Apart from occasional, dirge-like musical interludes by fiddler Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, “Moby Dick’’ consists of nothing more than Lovett himself, a wooden table on which he sometimes splays the fingers of his left hand, and the effects he can create with his voice, face, and body. And, of course, the fathoms-deep richness of Herman Melville’s language as his characters grapple with the workings of fate.
Building from his deliberately low-key beginning, Lovett skillfully channels not just Ishmael, the young sailor who leaves “the good city of old Manhatto’’ in search of adventure at sea, but also Captain Ahab, obsessed to the point of madness by his quest for revenge against the great white whale who bit off his leg; Queequeg, the kindly Polynesian harpooner who befriends Ishmael after an initially awkward encounter in a New Bedford inn; Starbuck, the chief mate (and future namesake of a certain chain that sells overpriced coffee); and other crew members aboard the Pequod, that doomed whaleship.
Such is Lovett’s capacity to evoke sensations that we can virtually feel a typhoon’s fury when Ishmael describes it, and we flinch at the “gush of clotted red gore’’ when he recounts the killing of another, lesser whale, and we understand why Ishmael might succumb to “wild, mystical’’ emotions as he is caught up in Ahab’s “quenchless feud’’ with “that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.’’
We can see Ahab when Lovett shifts into the character of the crazed captain in a frenzied outburst during which he says the name Moby Dick 20 times in about two minutes. Most memorably, we see him when Ahab shouts these defiant words to Moby Dick as he enters the final, fatal phase of their epic struggle: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.’’
Alongside the feat of characterization represented by Lovett’s performance is an equally impressive feat of memorization. In his ability to absorb vast chunks of a classic American novel, Lovett is reminiscent of Scott Shepherd, who starred in “Gatz,’’ a stage adaptation of “The Great Gatsby’’ by Elevator Repair Service. In that production, seen locally in 2010 at the American Repertory Theater, Shepherd narrated almost the entirety of Fitzgerald’s novel.
But there’s scarcely a wasted word in “Gatsby.’’ Melville’s book, by contrast, is a famously maddening masterpiece, loaded to the gunwales with skull-implodingly detailed information about whaling, as if the author had been determined to let us know just how much research he did. So apart from its considerable other virtues, this stage version of the novel, stripped to the essentials but retaining the best of Melville, can be seen as a kind of gift to English majors everywhere.