BWW Review: Shaking the Family Tree of POOR HERMAN Melville

BWW Review: Shaking the Family Tree of POOR HERMAN Melville

In his lifetime, Herman Melville was considered a failure. Melville was a novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period. His work was almost forgotten during the last thirty years of his life. Today, he is best known for his whaling novel Moby-Dick. His first book, Typee, a romanticized tale of life among Polynesians, was a best-seller that was followed by the sequel, Omoo. His novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities was a failure, reviled by critics and to this day considered basically unreadable. Melville's career never recovered from it. It is the period after Moby-Dick that forms the basis of POOR HERMAN, a new play by Elisabeth Doss, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville.

POOR HERMAN is an examination of the perception of failure. The production walks a fine line between high drama and low comedy with dazzling success. The audience is informed that they are seeing historical fiction by an inspired singing chorus moment early in the piece. It begins with Melville after the lukewarm reception of Moby-Dick. The first act explores Melville while he was writing Pierre in the Berkshires and his "friendship" with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose success with gothic fiction inspired Melville to try writing a populist romance in order to get out of debt. That attempt was Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. The second act is a hilariously over the top version of Pierre. Playwright Doss has stated that she took liberties with the text and used no direct quotes. There is an epilogue of sorts that imagines a funeral for Melville. It is in that final scene that Doss really addresses how failure is perceived in a lovely imaginative ending that is both clever and deeply moving.

Doss and Lisa Laratta co-directed POOR HERMAN, the new paper chairs show now playing at the Off Center. They have done a remarkable job with the piece which moves beautifully and never fails to be entertaining and intriguing. The production is also the best use I have seen of the whole cavernous space that is the Off Center. The piece is underscored by Henna Chou's music. The music is a combination of Chou's live and recorded music, with live accompaniment on additional instruments. Her music is a gorgeous accompaniment to the mood of the evening.

Actresses Courtney Hopkin, Alexis Scott, Diana Lynn Small, Megan Tabaque and Rama Tchuente form the five woman ensemble of POOR HERMAN and operate as a true ensemble playing multiple roles through out the performance; including the role of Herman Melville which is taken on by almost everyone in the production at one time or another. These women are astonishing going from serious dramatic moments to great inspired silliness with ease and grace. It is impossible to single out any one performance because they are a true ensemble.

Lisa Laratta's set is a textural wonder. Featured prominently is the huge back wall covered with gathered fabric that invokes multiple images as the performance progresses. It is beautifully enhanced by Kate Ducey's lighting design that periodically bathes it in stunning color.

POOR HERMAN is a great evening of theatre. I guarantee that you will both laugh heartily and be moved deeply by the ending. I highly recommended this weird and wonderful evening of original Austin theatre.

POOR HERMAN by Elizabeth Doss

Running time: Approximately Two Hours with one intermission.

POOR HERMAN, produced by paper chairs, plays The Off Center (2211 Hidalgo St.) 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through May 28. Tickets are $10-$25. Information: 512-686-6621, paperchairs.com.

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