Renegade’s ‘Bathtub Moby-Dick’ at FringeArts

Captain Ahab in South Philadelphia

Swidey in tub: A different reality— namely, our own.
Swidey in tub: A different reality— namely, our own.

Bathtub Moby-Dick brings back to life “salon theater” in the living room of a working class South Philly neighborhood ("It is not down on any map; true places never are”), with people of all ages and backgrounds sitting around a fireplace, waiting for Melville’s Captain Ahab to down Moby-Dick, the white whale, and wondering what to expect (“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing").

Unannounced, the versatile actor Ed Swidey stumbles into the living room from the street, almost breaking his leg, and within minutes transforms the audience into partygoers. He then limps upstairs, leaving us with the live image of a bathroom that appeared on a gigantic screen above the fireplace.

Having arrived there, our host told his imaginary five-year-old son Bobby the story of Moby-Dick, illustrating it with umpteen plastic toys with such vigor and joy that I suddenly found myself fighting tears of recognition: Here was the father I never had, taking time to explain and illustrate for a child Melville's most famous masterpiece, America’s answer to War and Peace: the struggle between two powerful enemies.

Glued to the screen

Then, bit by bit, the lovable father turned into Ahab, undressed, jumped into the tub, rolled around the water like the white whale, and took on several personas with such vigor that I, as someone who doesn’t watch TV, was glued to the screen as I followed the journey of a man who confessed, “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts."

And just when I thought it impossible for anyone to go even deeper into Captain Ahab's madness, Swidey— the actor— received a private call on his cell phone. That totally unexpected scene threw us out of our fascination with Ahab into the realization that Swidey was dealing with a different reality now, namely our own. It’s a classical Brechtian alienation mode.

The genius of Mike Durkin, founding artistic director of the Renegade Company, and Swidey, came through in numerous scenes. For example, Swidey, still talking on his cell phone, smears a fish sandwich into his face, transitioning quickly from one mode of living, one moment in time, to another.

Water and sound

He mesmerized us as much as the white whale mesmerized him. But he also made us think, in a constant up-and-down process: Waves washing over the whaling ship Pequod in an ordinary South Philly bathroom upstairs were enhanced by the sounds of waves hitting a boat as well as ethereal tonalities that accompanied us on this magic but also disturbing journey.

We laughed, we shuddered, and at the end we still saw the loving father, the man, the fellow human being in all his nakedness, his vulnerability.

Melville’s erotic side

Durkin and Swidey used the original text of Moby-Dick, including Melville’s hidden and not-so-hidden eroticism, which hit a raw nerve for his contemporaries, not to mention many people today. Consider this classical Melvillean confession, uttered by Captain Ahab, splashing around in an old fashioned bathtub:

“Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! All the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.”

With an honesty rare during the mid-1800s, Melville presented the vivid details of his erotic encounters with the sailors, which to him was inseparable from his positive outlook on life:

“Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say, —Oh! my dear fellow beings”¦ let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

No wonder that readers of Moby-Dick, and especially the viewers of Bathtub Moby-Dick, were intrigued by the external and internal happenings that they witnessed.

Bathtub Moby-Dick ought to travel all over the English-speaking world, to be experienced by anyone interested in the sea, whaling and American literature— even those who may be afraid to tackle a long, involved novel published in 1851 might be willing to venture out to sea through this extraordinary production.

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