Go Deeper

In a Bathtub Reading Moby Dick, Live!

Posted August 20th, 2013
Artwork by Eric Scotolati, Graphics by Daniel Kontz

Artwork by Eric Scotolati, graphics by Daniel Kontz.

Spend the day in the bathtub and you can gain a lot of things. Peace, stillness, fingers like a pack of California Raisins, and a reasonably sanitary body.

Known for its adventurous refurbishings of classic works, Philadelphia-based theater group The Renegade Company presents their latest in the 2013 Fringe Festival when they undertake the grand theatrical experiment of seeing what a good, long soapy soak in the bathtub can do for the iconic literary masterpiece Moby-Dick. An equally brilliant and wayward path to deeply existential quandaries surrounding love and loss, Bathtub Moby-Dick observes a heartrendingly nude and vulnerable Robert (Ed Swidey) alone in his bathtub.  Jobless and recently divorced, disillusioned and overwhelmed, Robert escapes to the diversions of Herman Melville’s tale of the great white whale, and finds himself steeping deeper and deeper into the turbulent psyche of Captain Ahab. Before hopping onto the boat and into the bathtub, FringeArts wanted to get inside the head of  The Renegade Company’s founding artistic director, Mike Durkin, and get an idea of what’s going to be going down in that bathroom come September.

FringeArts: When and where did your interest in theater begin?

Mike Durkin: I was in ninth grade and a girl I had a crush on signed up for drama club. I’d thought I’d impress her by signing up, as well. It didn’t work. Fourteen years later and I’m creating works that involve the classics and iconic works and re-imagining them.

FringeArts: How did The Renegade Company get started?

Mike Durkin: In the summer of 2008 I had a tomato, which caused the formation of my company. I don’t usually eat tomatoes, but one summer afternoon I decided to have a BLT. I was in New York at the time and that was the summer there was an outbreak of salmonella in tomatoes. Yada yada yada, I got salmonella poisoning. I was delirious and was in a waiting room in Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and sweating, and contemplating my existence. Through my delirium, I was thinking about plays I’d like to direct. I thought about Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. I realized that I liked that play and I’d like to direct it one day. I’d really like to direct it. Why shouldn’t I direct it? I’m going to direct it. Then, I started musing on creating theater. I’d love to form my own company someday. That’s what I wanted to do. I was fortunate enough to spend about nine months traveling around the country seeing all types of theater in various cities, formulating a company. Five years later, The Renegade Company is producing two works a season.

FringeArts: How did you settle on the group’s mission of re-imagining classic stories?

Mike Durkin: I’ve always been fond of adaptations and the classics, and I’ve always been fond of The Food Network. After watching many shows about reinterpreting classic dishes, I thought about how I could do that with theatrical works. Anyone can do a production of a classic story, whether the production is good or bad is beside the point, but how can we understand those stories through a different lens? How can we use the music of Woody Guthrie and union workers of the 1930s to understand the story of Prometheus, giver of fire? If I compared Renegade to a certain kind of food it would be Korean tacos; a little bit of one type of food mashed up with another style of food to create something new and exciting and different. That’s kind of like Renegade.

FringeArts: What sparked the idea for Bathtub Moby-Dick?

Mike Durkin: Remember that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer stayed in his bathtub and did everything in there? He did his taxes, cooked, installed a garbage disposal, watched television, etc. It was hilarious, and then I imagined a situation where someone would stay in their bathtub avoiding confronting reality. We’ve all been in a bath or a shower and wished to never leave. What happens if you don’t leave?

I was attracted to a level of patheticism that exists in stewing in your own filth, not dealing with reality. My company at the time was thinking about a version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and how to adapt it. We kept getting stuck on the largeness of the novel and the massive weight it holds. I decided to strip all the largeness away and ask, “What happens when we put the story in the bathtub?” I’m attracted to demystifying novels and works and understanding them as normal people.

FringeArts: But why a bathtub? How does this particular setting inform the significance of Moby-Dick?

Mike Durkin: Going off of playing with our perceptions. How can we take something so large and confront it in a small setting? How does being in a bathtub compare with being onboard a ship? Are they so different? How can we carry through the delirium and madness of the characters onboard to someone in a bathtub?


Photo: Cindy Spitko

FringeArts: Could you take us through a couple of steps in the show’s development?

Mike Durkin: With the works I create, I immerse myself in the world of the novel. After reading and re-reading the novel I’d, free-write about the themes, subject matter, and how the world we could create would be. From there, I went through people that would be the actor in the novel, and finally settled on Ed Swidey. He and I shared our love of the story and what could we do with the novel. We had multiple brainstorming sessions about cultivating the environment and how this vessel (character) would interpret the story; how the novel becomes incorporated into the story without feeling abrupt or contrived.

FringeArts: How do you think Fringe Festival audiences will connect?

Mike Durkin: The character we’ve cultivated is someone coping with loss. How do we cope with loss and why do we read fantasy novels? I am excited to share this story with folks and immerse them in a version of Moby-Dick. This isn’t quite an adaptation, it is more a re-purposing of the story of Moby-Dick.

Thanks, Mike! Can’t wait!

Buy your tickets!

$15 / 60 minutes
Wharton Heights
18th + Wharton Street
Sept 4-8, 11-15 + 18-22 at 6pm
Venue address provided after ticket purchase.

–Maya Beale