By the time the second act of Jack Aranson's "Moby Dick" began last night, the second floor lounge of the National Portrait Gallery had long since become the deck of the whale-ship Pequod, sailing "in the remotest and most savage seas" and manned not by Aranson alone, but by many.
"There's something lurks in whiteness that strikes terror in the soul . . ." the man in peacoat and cap intoned. "The whiteness of the albatross . . . of the albino man . . . the desolate shifting of the windblown snows of the mountains" . . . the whiteness of "the leper . . ."
"O, the whiteness! The whiteness! The . . . incandescence!"
Then another voice, seemingly from far away, broke the spell.
"Ahoy the Pequod!"
It was a voice from the whaling ship Rachel, the saddest ship in literature, a vessel that heaves into view "her yards and spars thick-clustered with men," men on the lookout for their lost whaleboat, circling endlessly day and night, "a fire in her try-pots for a beacon."
Her captain begs Ahab for help in the search for the lost boat. "My boy, my own son, was among them . . . not 12 years old."
Now Starbuck, the loyal mate, speaks up. Ahab too has a son, he reminds him, and the Pequod should join in the search . . .
Ahab responds, with the smallest gesture of an ivory-legged man, a chill of vengeance in his tone.
"Let the ship sail as before."
All of these voices -- Ahab's, Starbuck's, the Rachel's and the narrator's -- are Jack Aranson's, and after more than 11 years of performing a one-man enactment of Herman Melville's gigantic and terrifying story of God, men and a white whale, he slips from one to another as subtly as a cat turning a corner.
This sort of thing has been done before -- notably by Hal Holbrook for Mark Twain, and Emlyn Williams as "Charles Dickens," but seldom has a novel deserved a rip-roaring 90-minute-long "preview of coming attractions" more than "Moby-Dick."
Aranson, who apprenticed at London's Old Vic Theatre and helped found the San Francisco City Theater, has in these 16 scenes succeeded, much more successfully than John Huston and Gregory Peck, in catching his audience in the iron grip of Melville's vision and specifically of his prose.
Like the novel, Aranson's performance is full of foreshadowings of doom, peppered with piquant oaths and redolent of a fishery that in Melville's hands became a microcosm of the universe -- heaven, hell and watery earth. There is also some of Melville's marvelous humor -- "Moby-Dick" is wonderfully funny in its way. So it is that the innocent Ishmael, not yet having shipped out, can hopefully say:
"Capt. Ahab is sick, I'm told . . . but getting better."
And hear the bitter reply, "Is he now!"
The unforgettable Queequeg is here -- though his bedroom scene is not -- as is Tashtego, Flask and little Pip, lost when Ahab's whaleboat is bitten in two, when mad Ahab, "forehead to forehead" with the whale, drives deep his harpoon, gouging and digging it deep into the white hump "as if digging for a gold watch" buried deep therein.
In the end, only Ishmael is left to tell the tale, rescued by the still-searching "Rachel."
It is a marvel how Aranson builds the tension to this bitter end, how Melville's great uplifting language, a language of masculine poetry that is particularly American, and yet Shakespearean in its density and integrity to thought, sustains him in the effort.
"Row, row, burst your lungs! Old Ahab will dab off your blood. Somebody burst his liver and lungs! Pull Babes! Pull Sucklings! See the spout he makes, and what a hump! What do you say now Tastego, my lovely Cannibal?"
There is an echo in the National Portrait Gallery Lounge, but by the second act last night Aranson had learned to cope with it. The second and final scheduled performance is today at 2 p.m. There is no admittance fee, but reservations are requested.