In hindsight, it's easy to call Herman Melville a giant of American literature; his novels Moby Dick and Billy Budd are standard fare for English majors. But in his own lifetime, Melville was relatively unappreciated, ending up as a customs inspector, writing poetry in his spare time.

Photo of Kathleen M. Brady and Gloria Biegler as the Miss Pennies and Morgan Hallett as Isabel in Pierre
Kathleen M. Brady and Gloria Biegler
as the Miss Pennies and Morgan
Hallett as Isabel
The final blow to Melville's flirtation with success was his novel Pierre: or the Ambiguities, which has been adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and is currently receiving its world premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company. In addition to his own original work (Scotland Road, Three Viewings), Hatcher's experience with adaptations (One Foot on the Floor [Feydeau's Le Dindon] and Bon Voyage [Coward's Sail Away]) certainly stands as helpful preparation for dealing with this problematic story.

If Pierre were only a gothic tragedy of Dickensian proportions, Melville may well have produced many more novels, but the abandonment of high sea adventures for an exploration of the darkest impulses of human behavior flavored with heavy doses of sharp, well-directed social criticism was more than his readers could bear. If that were not enough, against the advice of his editors Melville included a nearly 200 page diatribe on writing and criticism (a reaction to bad reviews for Moby Dick) in the book, which Hatcher has thankfully exorcised from his adaptation. Yet the feel of the production remains literary.

Pierre is flooded with well defined voices, some poetic, nearly Shakespearean, some polemic, and some coarse and common — all spotlighting Melville's fine ear and gift for language. Christopher Kelly is Pierre Glendinning, a well-bred heir to a substantial estate. Kelly effortlessly portrays a youth whose refined nature eventually leads him beyond the superficial class expectations his mother and the local gentry have set for him. Maintaining his idealistic values throughout, Kelly's disinherited Pierre descends into the underbelly of 19th Century American life.

Gordana Rashovich is riveting as Mary Glendinning, Pierre's controlling and overly attached mother, a malevolent and vindictive woman. Her heinous laughter accompanying her self-immolation is one of the most chilling moments of the evening. Shannon Koob and Morgan Hallett provide a striking contrast as the two love interests, Lucy, the innocent, gentrified, long-time sweetheart, and Isabel, the mysterious and passionate charwoman.

In her most entertaining performance at the Center, Caitlin O'Connell deftly weaves the nuances of voice and facial expressions to make Dorothea Glendinning, Pierre's irreverent aunt, the comedic heart of the play. Erik Tieze, Bill Christ, Kathy Brady, Gloria Biegler, Marcus Waterman, and Randy Moore also provide excellent supportive performances.

While it is remarkable how seamlessly director Bruce K. Sevy and his designers keep this Gothic melodrama of 27 actors and countless characters moving through 160 scene shifts, and while the dramatic tension maintains a feverish pitch and the central moral struggle of the play resonates with our own time, Pierre's sweep is so broad that it never achieves the depth required for the epic catharsis it seeks.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher's Pierre runs through June 8th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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