South Coast Repertory launches 2017 with Lookingglass Theatre Company’s successful Moby Dick
For 150 years, writers for the stage and then screen have sought to wrestle Herman Melville’s sprawling Moby-Dick into a two-hour play, film or opera. In 2015 Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company succeeded by energizing its storytelling by relying on stage techniques available when the book was published.
The adaptation, written and directed by Lookingglass Artistic Director David Catlin and continuing at South Coast Repertory through February 19, has a unit set that gives the production a bare bones appearance. No projections are used and William Kirkham’s light plot uses a restricted color palette that recalls the natural illumination 19th Century audiences experienced. The versatile ten-member cast incorporates aerial and acrobatic work (choreographed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi) and in Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney and Kasey Foster has actors with the ballet training to bourree under hoop skirts as if they are floating across the stage.
Though modern equipment amplifies Rick Sims’ elaborate sound design and original music, helping create the thrilling climax, there is a nod to early methods with wavy sheets of metal, like those once used to replicate thunder, hanging downstage left and right.
Perhaps the most impressive trick is also the simplest: Huge expanses of fabric represent various physical and mystical elements in the story. At one point vast billowing sheets are pulled from the back wall over the audience, briefly submerging us below the ocean surface. Courtney O’Neill integrates the rope and rigging of a whaler into a set dominated by simple curves of white pipe that suggest the inside of a leviathan. To represent sea voyages, cast members carry model ships.
The end of Melville’s 1851 novel, in which the whaler Pequod is destroyed by a white-headed whale called Moby-Dick, was inspired in part by the 1820 destruction of the Essex by a sperm whale. The Pequod‘s sinking, however, represents a showdown between man, in the form of the ship’s revenge-crazed Captain Ahab, and the almighty natural force of the whale.
The fates, prophetically dubbed “stage managers” by the author, are personified as women. They first appear as Nantucket whaling widows reading epitaphs of lost husbands. It has the effect of reminding that for these people, memories were not merely something recalled by survivors, but the spiritual essence of the deceased that survived to move among us. Likewise, these fates roam the stage, at times an ominous chorus, at other times, as when Foster stands in the midst of undulating, proscenium-wide fabric, representing an ocean ready to swallow the arrogant Ahab.
Lookingglass’ mix of dramatic and technical arts helps celebrate what has kept theater alive.
Our narrator is the sole survivor of the Pequod, who asks to be called Ishmael. Jamie Abelson’s take on his role is more the former schoolteacher at sea (as Melville had been), rather than the seaman who would become a novelist. It doesn’t always feel right, as does Catlin’s early insertion of low comedy, as when Ishmael’s encounters with the noble harpooner Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III) verges on clowning. It did, however, help hook our matinee audience. So, it worked.
As with the most famous and timeless interpretation of the book, the 1956 film co-written by Ray Bradbury and director John Huston, it is the portrayal of Ahab that determines any show’s fate. Here, Christopher Donahue is properly tortured and driven. Ultimately we may not grasp all that compels his suicidal quest, but Catlin helps us understand how Melville’s mix of the mythic and the divine has kept this story alive. At the same time, Lookingglass’ mix of dramatic and technical arts helps celebrate what has kept theater alive.
Moby Dick. South Coast Repertory (January 20-February 19, 2017) Adapted and directed by David Catlin. Based on Herman Melville’s novel. With Kelley Abell, Jamie Abelson, Walter Owen Briggs, Cordelia Dewdney, Christopher Donahue, Micah Figueroa, Anthony Fleming III, Kasey Foster, Raymond Fox and Javen Ulambayar. Understudies are Adeoye and Chris Mathews. Scenic design by Courtney O’Neill; costumes by Sully Ratke; lighting by William C. Kirkham; original music and sound by Rick Sims; aerial and acrobatic choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi and stage managed by Mary Hungerford.