Chicago Theatre Review
Another Whale of a Production
Moby Dick – Lookingglass Theatre
After dazzling local audiences, winning multiple awards, touring the country and astounding everyone who’s experienced this show with its power and spectacle, this behemoth of a production returns to its Chicago home. Both intelligently adapted from the original novel and brilliantly directed by David Catlin, this play is produced, like many of Lookingglass Theatre’s productions, in conjunction with the marvelous Actors Gymnasium. It’s an absolutely electrifying event.
The production is a magnificent fusion of great acting, astounding feats of aerial and acrobatic artistry and innovative scenery, props, lighting, costumes and sound design. Catlin’s adaptation fully captures the essence of Melville’s 900+ page novel. In it, he includes all the main characters, plot developments and emotional journeys of this majestic masterpiece, including much of Melville’s vividly descriptive narration, told in imaginative, story-theatre style. This is absolutely one whale of a production.
Audiences needn’t be apprehensive about attending this play because it’s based upon a classic novel or because they’ve never read the book. David Caitlin has provided everything necessary to fully understand Melville’s story of obsession and revenge. He’s included all the stellar moments from the story, while still telling his tale with lyrical beauty and simplicity. We begin with the story’s innocent main character, a young man new to whaling, who introduces himself in what must be the most famous opening line of a novel: “Call me…Ishmael.” We go on to encounter more colorful characters, including the savage, tattooed, often humorous, but admirably brave Queequeg. We then meet the practical-minded Quaker realist, chief mate Starbuck; the more cheerful, easygoing second mate Stubb; two other dedicated crew members, Cabaco and Mungun; and, of course, the “grand, ungodly god-like,” one-legged, maniacal Captain Ahab. Providing local color and a mood that’s hauntingly beautiful, three young women called the Fates weave in, around and through this tale of the sea. Sometimes they play actual women, such as the innkeeper, while at other times they become various ocean creatures or spirits of the surf. Eventually the trio combine to create the fearsome great white whale, itself.
When playgoers enter the theatre they’ll find themselves simultaneously on the deck of the whaling ship Pequod, while also inside what appears to be the gullet of their giant prey. Courtney O’Neill has designed a set that both envelopes the entire playing area, while extending outward and engulfing the audience, as well. Circular metal tubing around the space represents the ribcage of the great leviathan, helping theatergoers appreciate the vast enormity of these aquatic creatures. The ribs are able to support human weight, as actors climb, swing and seem to levitate from them. O’Neill later adds other unique elements, with the assistance of rigging expert Isaac Schoepp, along with movable platforms, a beautifully painted coffin and miles of silken fabric that create a backdrop and become the roiling waters of the deep. One of Ms. O’Neill’s most memorable effects works in tandem with costumer Sully Ratke. It’s the all-consuming ocean, personified as a mysterious woman, who welcomes drowning sailors with an embrace and a kiss of death before they finally disappear beneath her waves. William C. Kirkham provides a moody, atmospheric lighting design while original music and sound are the fine work of Rick Sims.
This cast is, once again, quite remarkable. Powerful character actor Nathan Hosner, who was in the National Tour of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and who’s often graced many notable Chicago stages, makes his Lookingglass debut. Here he gives a riveting portrayal of Captain Ahab. His twisted, bearded face and unrestrained physicality belongs to a man consumed with revenge and determination that’s ultimately driven this character mad. As Mr. Hosner clunks around the stage on his severed leg, a trophy that Moby Dick has bestowed upon him, the actor’s face, especially his expressive eyes, speaks volumes.
Anthony Fleming III is sensational, alternately funny, feline and fierce, as Queequeg. Driven with passion and filled with divine purpose, this actor knows his character inside and out. Drawing from somewhere deep within, Fleming fully inhabits this memorable Polynesian character. Jamie Abelson is a likable Ishmael, a young man whose confidence, physical prowess and maturity grows immeasurably during the two-and-a-half hour production. The actor’s ability to draw the audience to him, befriending and making each theatergoer his confidant during this saga, is a tribute to Mr. Abelson’s talent as an actor and storyteller. Walter Owen Briggs, it should be noted, plays Ishmael at matinee performances.
Talented and amiable Raymond Fox juggles a variety of different roles, playing each of them with finesse, from the kindly second mate Stubbs to a frantic and desperate Captain Gardener, a man whose young son has been snatched away by another whale. Kareem Bandealy creates both Bunger and a mostly stoic chief mate Starbuck. One of his best moments arrives as Mr. Starbuck finds the opportunity to kill the obsessed Ahab with the skipper’s own gun, but ultimately succumbs to his emotions and intellect, realizing that both he and the crazed captain are both two sides of the same coin.
Micah Figueroa and Javen Ulambayar are excellent in their roles as crew members Cabaco and Mungun, demonstrating incredible flexibility as aerialists and acrobats that’s unsurpassed. The entire cast, in fact, benefits from the diligent training provided by circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi; and kudos go to stage manager Jeri Frederickson and her hardworking crew for safely maintaining and transforming the playing area, as needed.
Kelley Abell, Mattie Hawkinson and Cordelia Dewdney bring a welcome calm, poetic beauty and melancholy to this piece, swaying across the stage like ocean waves in their 19th century hoop skirts and adornment. At times they become mourners for their men lost at sea, cetologists explaining the differences between species of sea creatures, ghost-like nymphs of the deep and a pod of gentle whales, one of whom tenderly nurses her calf. However, in one sadly gut-wrenching scene one of the actresses becomes a whale who’s been harpooned, dragged aboard ship, brutally beaten to death, hoisted in the air and stripped of her flesh, leaving only her white, hoop-skirted skeletal remains.
David Catlin’s newly polished, remounted production of his own faithful adaptation of Melville’s classic once again displays wise and carefully dependable direction. He fills the Lookingglass Theatre with excitement, emotion and electricity. For anyone who’s ever considered reading this imposing novel, Mr. Catlin’s production might be just the impetus to send that reader to his library or bookstore. But for those simply searching for a deeply moving, heart-pounding story, look no further. A time-honored tale of revenge that rides the pounding waves of the seven seas, this creative and stirring production is the summer’s newest must-see show.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 7-September 3 by Lookingglass Theatre, located within the historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue at Pearson, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-337-0665 or by going to www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.