Chicago Theatre Review
Wooden Ships and Iron Women
Moby Dick at Lookingglass
As has been seen about at the start of this theatrical year with Shawn Pfautch’s superb Season on the Line, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a dangerous tale to tell. The White Whale, his implacable one-legged pursuer, and the melancholy teller of their doleful dance, have wrecked as many a storyteller as a whaleboat. But adaptor-director David Catlin and the Lookingglass company have set to their oars with a will and created a cohesive and electrifying story.
Due to the limits of time and scope (it’s hard to bring a cast of 33 on stage, or dramatize Melville’s monologues, shakespearian though they be) much of the novel, and many of the characters, have been reshaped or folded in. But what Melville took a thousand words to paint, Catlin has pictured in an astonishing feats of storytelling. Courtney O’Neill’s cobbled theater, a savage place of drift wood and whale bones, offers the cast a playground to scale up, dangle down, and pop out from. A place where Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) and the Three Fates (Monica West, Kasey Foster and Emma Cadd) weave wonders from the world. Though most of the soundscape is provided by the Fates themselves (eery verses and a strikingly accurate whale-song score) sound designer Rick Sims stretches the world even further: it is by his hands that we begin to comprehend at the enormity of the monster, which somehow in the dark all around us.
It is true that some of the physical exploits carry out their tasks with more flair than strictly necessary, and some of the more tender speeches are marred by unfortunate accents, but the adaption goes a long way towards bringing the book to life. The best I have seen of the dreaded cetology chapter (that has reefed many an attempted reading) is Ishmael being shown each of his cremates by a Fate (West) finding in them aspects of the various whales they hunt. Abelson’s Ishmael is well suited to that of the fresh student at the school of hard knocks. His small quirkings, internal thoughts along the lines of, “Hold the telegraph a hot sec’, he said what?” can be read from the back of the house and he carefully tools his devolution from uptight new englander in search of adventure to man desperately trying to turn the reigns of his story from something other than doom. A true triumph of a performance comes from Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner who introduces Ishmael to the whaling life and becomes his boon-companion. Some of Catlin’s most thoughtful expansions to the script come from exploring the friendship between this odd-couple; swapping stories, ideas, thoughts of desolation and hope but Fleming, in addition to giving us a clear window into the the mind and soul of the “noble savage,” uses his well-honed grace to let Queequeg’s nobility shine in his smallest gesture.
Flemming shares this magnetism with the Three Fates who, more than just energetic stage managers, sink their teeth into the story and grow flush with its blood. Beginning as a cast of human interlocutors either humorous (a wry innkeeper or a comedically ominous soothsayer) or somber (grieving women left to mourn their loved ones) they slowly evolve into harrowing creatures, maliciously delighted to sow death and snare souls on the high seas. To describe their many exploits, and the crew’s as well, would be to take the bloom of a most appetizing fruit but I cannot help but paint one scene, seared upon my memory. A harpooned whale, locked in the body of a fate (Cadd), is heaved up on the ships deck. As Ahab (Christopher Donahue) stands over her, philosophizing on the nature of death and the will to live, the whale looks at the circle of men who have robbed her of life and mean to peel her, strip her flesh from her bones, and sell the oil they’ll boil from her. It’s more than a moment of “Ah, yeah. That’s good acting go’n on there.” It is a moment when I had to fight to keep the tears from my eyes and my heart from my throat. And through it all I could still can see the sparks of the pain and fear catch hold in Queequeg and Ishmael; sparks of discontent with their profession and circumstance that will grow to consume them. It is in such moments like these, where the technical genius and the feats of magic become merely a smart coat of paint, that we truly touch what is human inside this leviathan of a story.
by Ben Kemper
Lookingglass Theater 821 N. Michigan Ave (Chicago/State on the Red line) Tickets: $40-$80 6/21-8/9 Tue-Fri: 7:30 Saturdays 2:00 and 7:30 Sundays: 2:00. For more information visit theaterinchicago