It isn’t necessarily down on any map, but after weaving through a neighborhood of boarded up shotgun houses and pulling up alongside some abandoned silos in Houston’s East End, a white dome appears. The air-conditioned half-sphere is home to Horse Head Theatre’s newest site specific production, a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s a passion project for actor Philip Hays and artistic director Jacey Little, and like many seafaring tales of yore, this production was born after a few beers.
“We’ve been friends for years, but we never worked together on a play,” says Hays, whose tall, bearded and lanky appearance goes well with his character of a swallowed seafarer. So, after a few cold ones, Hays' version of the epic ocean tale was born and bred. The story isn’t exactly a strict adaptation of Melville’s ode to the sea; rather it’s meta-Moby-Dick, turning the whale into a character, his innards into a stage and Hays merely a player. “This whale really wants this story to be told. So, he’s been collecting all the items he needs to tell it. And the last two things he needed were a performer and an audience,” says Hays.
That audience is brought into the space—the 22-foot tall white semi-sphere—and becomes fellow swallow-ees alongside the solo actor, sitting on wooden benches resembling chopped up driftwood. Projections, sound effects and recorded sea shanties help to illuminate this lost-at-sea tale, enhancing the fully immersive experience of the story.
And it’s the placing of the dome that only adds to the idea of being a fish out of water. “It’s a destination performance. We’re nestled between downtown and the bayou. We wanted to be near a body of water,” says Little. “A body of water seemed important unless the real whale wanted to make an appearance. He has a way here,” adds Hays.
When audience members arrive at the site, the sun will be setting, tickling Buffalo Bayou with the dying light and leading people to the dome/the belly of the beast.
Back inside the space, it’s clear to see it’s an actor’s playground, complete with ship boxes strewn about, a floor that’s “lava” and plenty of room for imagination. “Some magical stuff goes on inside. It’s a version of me who finds himself in this extraordinary situation, presented with an impossible task,” says Hays. “The interior of the whale will be represented and then as the storytelling progresses, the whale will use his magical powers to enhance the story and it will be more elemental.”
Hays’ and Little’s version of the epic sea monster story is whimsical, magical, immersive and mysterious, using the antiquated practice of storytelling and mixing pure imagination with drama and comedy. For audience members, you may not know all that may be coming, but you will surely go to it, and away from it, laughing.
The Whale (or Moby-Dick) runs from July 29 to August 15. Audience members are encouraged to arrive at 8 p.m., as late seating is not permitted.
$15-35. East End Silos, 351 N. St. Charles St. 281-381-4166. getswallowed.com