Written by Scotty Keister
Let there be no mistake: Moby-Dick is a book about whales. Its full title, which does not even appear on my paperback copy, is Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. First published in 1851, it was poorly reviewed and derailed what was a budding literary career for Herman Melville, who went on to become a customs clerk and die in relative poverty, having sold only a little over 3,000 copies of the book in his lifetime. However, Moby-Dick lives on as a literary classic that has been championed by countless writers and debated endlessly. The story has fascinated generation after generation. There are a number of stage versions (including a worthy one by Orson Welles), but this newest one, adapted and directed by David Catlin for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, and now running on South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage, is—for my money—the best. Simply titled Moby Dick, it is a rollicking, spectacular, breath-taking and astonishing work of theater craft. Encompassing the arts of acrobatics, ballet, music and singing, aerial dance, creative costuming, and stunning light and sound work, the play manages to touch on most of the themes the novel pores over at length, using only minimal words and movement.
The set alone (designed by Courtney O’Neill) is an eye-popper. Inhabiting center stage is what could be a giant craggy slab of vulcanized wood—perhaps the deck of an ancient sailing vessel mired on a rocky shore, keeling over to one side. Surrounding this, we appear to be within the rib cage of a great whale. From stage to upper curtain, curved white rods extend, concentrically growing smaller toward the dented circle at the rear. The sailors—a crew of thirty-three represented by six actors who are a constantly in motion—effortlessly shimmy up the rods to hang and perch on yardarms and ropes. The ropes! Ropes are everywhere. On both sides of the stage, ropes are tied off and stretch upwards to perform a number of duties. They lift and swing the whaling boats, they provide floating mechanisms for the actors—most notably Cordelia Dewdney portraying St. Elmo’s Fire—and they hoist the mighty sail that completely masks the rear of the stage, except for the shadow play that goes on behind it. Three female performers remarkably take on many roles: a Greek chorus, sailor wives, the Sea, an innkeeper, and various whales including Moby Dick himself. In the representational costuming (by Sully Ratke), the whales are portrayed by the actresses in black hoop skirts, who carry black parasols and wear swimming goggles. Kasey Foster plays the Sea wearing a dress that is an enormous billowing black parachute, covering the entire stage.
This is the rare show where acting is, though highly engaging for the most part, basically irrelevant. The stagecraft carries the show. Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg ably take on the greatest part of the dialog, and provide much of the humor in the show during the first act. Christopher Donahue as the mad Captain Ahab is the weakest link. His Ahab is oddly flat in the first act, very much more low key than all the physical exertion and exuberance exploding around him. Yet, by the time the chase for the White Whale is on in Act Two, Ahab’s madness takes over the action and Donahue excels.
The play follows the basic plot of the book, which is more or less one-third whales and the whaling industry, one-third a sea adventure, and one-third a dissertation on madness, yet it manages to convincingly discover a fresh way to look at the tale. What the White Whale represents has been argued over since the book’s publication, but this show gives us something different. The play is, in many ways, told from the whale’s perspective. In this light, Moby Dick can be seen as Nature’s Vengeance, an avenger fighting back against a human race that has slaughtered whales for centuries, purely for financial gain. Moby Dick is an indestructible force of nature that cannot be conquered or subdued. The crew of the Pequod recognize the potential danger and continually try to stir Ahab away from his obsessive quest, yet his madness, or the madness of all mankind, will not be swayed. And doom follows.
Like the book, this play can be read any number of ways. Because so much of it is representational and not literal, it opens up the mind of its audience instead of preaching to it. It’s like a circus with a singular focus. It is bewildering and audacious and definitely will not be everyone’s cup of grog. The seniors in my row all left at intermission. More’s the pity. For the finale of the show, when the great Moby Dick attacks the Pequod and its sailors, the whole theater feels under assault. The combination of flashing lights and booming sound effects had my jaw bouncing off my chest. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a show like this and can’t think of one that has impressed me more, both in imaginative story-telling and sheer technical achievement. I’m guessing Herman Melville would be pleased.
Moby Dick runs through February 19.
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