Among literatures many famous opening phrases like “In the beginning,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and “It was a dark and stormy night,” the best, I think, belongs to Herman Melville. Moby Dick begins with “Call me Ishmael.” When I read it or hear it, a little shiver runs down my spine. Many students have been called upon to read the tale as part of their high school education and so may take a dim view of the book. As a teenager and even earlier, I was an inveterate reader and I picked up the book on my own and read it cover to cover voraciously. The most fascinating section for me is that which is often omitted for high school readers, the detailed description of the process of killing and rendering whales into the valuable products of oil and bone.
Many people remember the film version with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab that was directed by John Huston with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. Others may have seen mini-series versions with Patrick Stewart, William Hurt, or Barry Bostwick as Ahab. Orson Welles did a two-act stage version called Moby Dick—Rehearsed in 1955.
Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Moby Dick, now playing at South Coast Repertory, makes a bold new approach to the tale. The company is renowned for the physicality of their approach to theatrical storytelling. The bold gymnastic skills of the performers are on prominent display as they create a visual spectacle of a ship at sea under the command of a monomaniacal captain.
Briefly, Moby Dick tells the story of the voyage of the whaling ship Pequod under the command of Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue in a titanic, Lear-like performance) as seen from the point of view of a novice whaler. Ishmael (Jamie Abelson), a disaffected young man adrift in the world and seeking a radical change in his fortunes, gets much more than he bargained for when he signs on to the Pequod. The vengeful Ahab makes it clear that, more important than the harvesting of whales, he seeks the death of the infamous white whale known as Moby Dick, the leviathan that caused the loss of his leg. Ishmael bonds with his shipmates, especially with the fierce Pacific Islander Queequeg (wonderful, athletically precise Anthony Fleming III). Second Mate Stubb (Raymond Fox) introduces Ishmael to the Pequod and the life of the whaler, while First Mate Starbuck (Walter Owen Briggs) displays a stabilizing nobility throughout, even daring to confront the captain when it is plain that disaster looms.
Melville’s story is vast and filled with characters, which requires almost all the actors to take on multiple roles. Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney and Kasey Foster as a trio of Fates haunt the stage, singing in close harmony and taking on female characters as well as representing whales and the sea. Ms. Foster, assisted by much of the cast, represents the roiling of the mighty ocean waves. (How? See the show!) At some height above the stage, Ms. Downey suggests Saint Elmo’s fire, a weather phenomenon that sends bright plasma up and down the rigging of ships in a storm. All the performers display acrobatic and aerial skills worthy of Cirque du Soleil with the players Javen Ulambayar as Mungun and Micah Figueroa as Cabaco making the highest ascents.
One of the most affecting scenes in the play is the one I found so gruesomely fascinating as a teenager, the cunning representation of the stripping of a whale carcass and the rendering of the blubber into oil leaving only the white bones.
The set design by Courtney O’Neill, lit by William C. Kirkham, provides a gymnastic playground for the actors. Curved metal tubes call to mind the inside of a whale. Rope with multiple pulleys suggests the riggings of the ship. The rigging also supports platforms that swing above the stage as whaleboats that the sailors row in hot pursuit of their aquatic quarry. The expert design and creative teams boast the fine talents of Sully Ratke, costume design; Rick Sims, sound design/composition; Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, aerial and acrobatic choreography; Kathy Logelin, dialect coach; and Isaac Schoepp, rigging design.
This production of Moby Dick, created by Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago and co-produced by South Coast Rep in collaboration with Alliance Theatre (Atlanta), Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.), brings the classic novel to life in a spectacular fashion that combines story telling, dance, song, and bold acrobatics. This is a show not to be missed. Take the drive, spend the day, do whatever it takes. See Moby Dick before it is gone. It runs through February 19 on the Segerstrom Stage of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.