Chicago Theatre Review
A Whale of a Production
Moby Dick – Lookingglass Theatre
What a monumental conclusion to a trilogy of excellent and uniquely different productions (including “Season on the Line” and “The Whaleship Essex”) that have been inspired by Herman Melville’s literary classic. These three plays have been produced in succession around Chicago during the past year, and each has been inspiring, entertaining and captivating. But the best has been saved for the last. The final play, both intelligently adapted from the original novel and brilliantly directed by David Catlin, is produced, like many of Lookingglass Theatre’s productions, in conjunction with the marvelous Actors Gymnasium. This show is an absolutely electrifying event. It’s a fusion of great acting, astounding feats of aerial and acrobatic artistry and innovative scenery, props, lighting, costumes and sound design. Catlin’s adaptation 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 story-theatre style. This is absolutely one whale of a production.
Audiences needn’t be apprehensive attending this play because they’ve never read the book upon which it’s based. David Caitlin has provided everything necessary to fully understand Melville’s story of obsession and revenge. He’s included all the paramount 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 life or spirits of the surf and eventually 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 rigging and movable platforms, a 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 is 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.
This cast is remarkable. The wonderful Christopher Donahue, who’s often graced the Lookingglass stage with his talent in past productions, gives a riveting portrayal of Captain Ahab. His entire physicality is a man consumed with the kind of revenge and determination that’s driven this character mad. As Mr. Donahue clunks around the stage on his severed leg, a trophy that Moby Dick has stolen from him, the actor’s face, especially his eyes, tells the entire story. Anthony Fleming 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, Mr. Fleming absolutely 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 toward him and keep us his friend and confidant during this saga is a tribute to Mr. Abelson’s talent as an actor and storyteller.
Talented and amiable Raymond Fox juggles a variety of roles, playing each of them with finesse, from the kindly second mate Stubb to a frantic and desperate Captain Gardener, a man whose young son has been snatched away by the great whale. Kareem Bandealy creates a mostly stoic chief mate Starbuck. One of his best moments arrives as Starbuck finds the opportunity to kill the obsessed Ahab with his 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 Ulambayer are excellent in their roles as crew members Cabaco and Mungun, demonstrating a particular flexibility as aerialists and acrobats that’s unsurpassed.
Emma Cadd, Kasey Foster and Monica West 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, cetology lecturers explaining the differences between whale species, ghost-like nymphs of the deep and a pod of gentle whales, one of whom is tenderly nursing 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 production, from his faithful adaptation of Melville’s classic to his wise and caring direction, fills the Lookingglass stage 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 searching for a deeply moving, educational, 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 must-see show.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 10-August 28 by Lookingglass Theatre, located within the historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 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.