It’s an epic adventure that takes place on the vast, merciless sea. It’s a tale about camaraderie, sacrifice, danger and the deepest, darkest revenge. It’s “Moby Dick.”
The famous “Great American Novel,” written by Herman Melville in 1851, has been adapted into a thrilling theatrical production at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. Directed by David Catlin, “Moby Dick” is re-imagined for the stage and brings to life the legendary story of Captain Ahab, his loyal crew, and the giant, dangerous, white whale they hunt.
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Catlin’s adaptation is unique in many ways. It imaginatively recreates the bloody scenes of whale hunting and extracting whale oil, which are described in great detail in Melville’s novel, explores the social and cultural dynamics of a diverse crew and the conflict bubbling between their captain and his first mate, Starbuck, and presents important themes like good versus evil, camaraderie versus loneliness, man versus nature, reality versus imagination, and religion mixed with the supernatural.
The performance is two hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions, but it doesn’t feel long and, in fact, the time flies by as you’re sitting there, captivated by choreography that resembles “Cirque du Soleil.” The show’s simple scenic design, a wood stage with tall, metal rings that extend high above it, provides a space that can adapt to the performers’ needs. From a New England inn, to a church, to the deck of Captain Ahab’s whaler, “Pequod,” the story flows seamlessly on stage from one setting to the next.
It’s clear that Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, the production’s inventive choreographer, trained her actors and actresses in the circus arts for this show. As they climb high and hang onto the metal bars that surround the stage, the bars are transformed into the rigs of the ship and the actors into crewmembers on the “lookout” for whales or Moby Dick. As they sit on wooden planks, suspended by ropes in the air, and pretend to row oars, the planks become small whaleboats moving through the high waves of the monstrous sea. As one of the actresses is suspended in the air in an all-white leotard and flowing dress, she suddenly becomes the spiritual god of the sea.
The story is made all the more compelling and surreal with the addition of these acrobatics, which include everything from flying and dancing to balance and flexibility. Sound is also critical to the success of this performance and makes it feel more real, with noises that mimic the door of an inn creaking, the wind blowing, sea waves rolling, and lightning and thunder rumbling (thanks to Sound Designer Rick Sims).
Surprisingly, the combination of startling noises and dazzling acrobatics does not detract from the storyline or overshadow the acting. The cast is very talented, especially Anthony Fleming III, who plays the harpooner Queequeg. Fleming humorously depicts the goodness, playfulness and loyalty beneath his character’s uncivilized and uncouth exterior. Christopher Donahue, who plays the hardened and overbearing Captain Ahab, is also phenomenal. Donahue accurately presents Ahab’s struggle as a man torn between an insane desire for revenge, which will eventually lead to the untimely death of his crew (all except Ishmael), and a rational understanding of his role as the leader and safeguard of the ship.
What was also fascinating were the roles of the only female actors in the show: Kasey Foster, Monica West and Emma Cadd. These women played the fates, widows, innkeepers and whales, and provided a supernatural and religious element to the performance that was more sinister than it was spiritual. Foster, West and Cadd also depict Moby Dick in a frightening light, as a whale who has been hunting the “Pequod” as much as Ahab has been hunting it.
“Identities lost in unconscious reverie…our souls become deep, blue, bottomless,” says Ahab of life on the sea. Lookingglass Theatre’s “Moby Dick” is mystical and fabulous, a performance you won’t want to miss.
Image above right: (top to bottom) Emma Cadd, Christopher Donahue, Anthony Fleming III