Theater review: “Poor Herman” artfully explores Melville’s own story

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"Poor Herman." Photo by Leon Alesi.

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Canavan.)

If you could go back in time and speak with your ancestors, what would you tell them? Would you reassure them that they haven’t been forgotten?

"Poor Herman." Photo by Leon Alesi.

“Poor Herman.” Photo by Leon Alesi.

Playwright Elizabeth Doss grapples with these questions as she summons up the ghosts of her past in her newest play “Poor Herman,” now playing at the Off Center under the direction of Doss and Lisa Laratta.

Doss is the great-great-great granddaughter of writer Herman Melville, and in “Poor Herman” she explores the lives of Melville and his family after the commercial failure of “Moby Dick.”

But don’t expect the play to be a straightforward history lesson. Early on, a chorus tells the audience “there’s no such thing as historical accuracy” and asks us to see the play as “historical fiction with old-fashioned diction.” The poetic script is infused with history but offers an inventive reimagining of the past.

“Poor Herman” begins as Melville, mired in debt, tries to write a book that will appeal to the masses. He ends up writing a romance titled “Pierre: or the Ambiguities,” a novel so critically panned that it marks the end of his career.

"Poor Herman." Photo by Leon Alesi.

“Poor Herman.” Photo by Leon Alesi.

In the second act, we watch his worst book come to life as the cast plays out a version of “Pierre” filled with flowery language, ridiculous plot twists, and deliciously melodramatic overacting. In a quiet final scene, the characters come together for Melville’s funeral, where they encounter an unexpected surprise.

A dynamic ensemble of women (Courtney Hopkin, Alexis Scott, Diana Lynn Small, Megan Tabaque, and Rama Tchuente) plays all the roles in “Poor Herman,” even taking turns trading off as Melville.

The all-female cast puts the presence of women front and center in Melville’s story, a choice that challenges our cultural idea of the lone male genius. We witness the ways that Melville’s wife, mother, sister, and children struggle and sacrifice while Melville secludes himself in his office, frantically writing.

The cast is nimble, and it’s a pleasure to see a show with such a strong ensemble of women. The highly physical staging makes the show move quickly. Lisa Laratta’s simple but evocative set (including a backdrop that looks like sails) conjures domesticity and adventure at the same time. Henna Chou’s original score unobtrusively complements the action.

With “Poor Herman,” Doss gives voice to the people who populate her past. At the same time, her highly original script explores issues of gender, inspiration, and failure through her own unique and contemporary lens.

“Poor Herman” continues through May 28. paperchairs.com


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