Today we look around the office and wonder: Who is it? Who will be the first in this pressure cooker to go postal and take out a half-dozen of us?
Herman Melville spent long months in one of the great pressure cookers of his time, the intense life and closed circle of the whaling boat, which demanded collective work while magnifying personal idiosyncrasy and meanness.
Fortunately, when he went postal, it was in literary form--"Moby Dick," without doubt the greatest American novel. A great novel that has been more widely reviled than read, that remains the bane of high school kids and college freshmen, that is properly read only as an adult and after the point when ambition, drive and personal aggression have begun to smell a bit rank.
Laurie Anderson has read it five times, or so she tells us from the stage in her electronic mixed-media opera "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick," which opened a two-week run Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like Alban Berg's discovery of Buechner's "Wozzeck," Anderson's discovery of "Moby Dick" is a cataclysmic thing, a brilliant, blinding and powerfully moving dramatization of a work that needed at least a century to breathe before it started to become palatable.
When "Moby Dick" was first published in 1851, one reviewer wrote: "The style is maniacal--mad as a March hare--mowing, gibbering, screaming, like an incurable Bedlamite . . . a huge dose of hyperbolic slang, maudlin sentimentalism, and tragic-comic bubble and squeak." Bedlam is the perfect image, the terrifying din of too many voices saying too many things, a cacophony of meaning trapped in a small, inescapable place. It describes life in a small community, and it also describes what so many contemporary performance artists struggle to create and contain.
After Anderson's "Moby Dick," it's clear why it has never inspired a major opera. Its proper medium is Anderson's own, which brings to live theater the astonishing assault of imagery and speed and altered realities that are commonplace (and usually banal) on MTV.
Those who love the early Laurie Anderson--one woman with a funny violin and a voice saturated with lovable irony--may decry the complexity, cost and technological grandeur of her new work, her first major theater piece in years. But if any novel needed the pull-out-all-the-stops treatment, it was "Moby Dick."
Anderson weaves her own confrontation with the book into a fractured retelling of the story--which proceeds with a scattered and psychological logic while touching on only a handful of the work's various episodes. She weaves herself in, but never egomaniacally, and her presence inspires no resentment.
She accomplishes what so many other performance artists strive for, the honest presentation of the conversation between analyst and analysand, between reader and the text. (Edmund Morris might point to Anderson and ask why critics are trashing his new Ronald Reagan biography. Isn't it artificial for an artist who has grappled with a great subject to write him- or herself out of the work?)
Anderson has found the perfect subject to explore a new and evolving set of issues. Gone are the overt political references of her earlier works, replaced by more metaphysical musings on what Freud mapped out in his competing impulses to self-annihilation and survival. We chase the whale, it eats us, and then what? Mission accomplished and a nice long rest? Or does our last nap begin with a moment of cosmically horrible self-revelation? Anderson, and Melville, offer no final answers.
The same strange impulses that drive us to both accomplishment and despair are mirrored in the stage design, two large video screens that often double (and reverse) a single image, as if in a stereoscope. The mirror images flow into themselves at the seam, a beguiling visual effect with philosophical weight.
The four male performers, who along with Anderson play multiple roles, are dressed Trenchcoat Mafia style, all in black with the occasional stovepipe hat. Black is a stage cliche, but not here, and not in Anderson's vision of the work. It is the color that absorbs everything and reflects nothing, not a bad metaphor for the pathology of aggressive obsession.
The cast is strong, especially Tom Nelis, who plays, among other roles, an Ahab who moves a bit like the cartoon colonel in those KFC advertisements--a gangly, ridiculous and contemporary animation of a fading and static old symbol. Anderson, who presides over the whole affair, does so with her usual appealing mix of impish intellect and blase cool.
Anderson says she first became fascinated with the book while working on a project to make it accessible to students. Instead, she's blown "Moby Dick" wide open and left us to find our own way in. That may be the more significant accomplishment.
CAPTION: Laurie Anderson explores survival and self-destruction in "Moby Dick."