At the Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –The Lookingglass Theatre is reviving its hit production of “Moby Dick” through this summer, allowing fans of the 2015 original to revisit the brilliant adaptation and newcomers to immerse themselves for the first time in a bygone world created by the classic Herman Melville novel.
In opening my original review of “Moby Dick” I made comments that still hold with the revival: “The Lookingglass production of “Moby Dick” is a brilliant example of imaginative stagecraft, blending words and images into a stunning adaptation of probably the most complex novel in American literature. The Lookingglass adaptation may not be for all tastes, but for those willing to buy into the theater’s ambitious and creative presentation, the show is a remarkable journey.” So it was two years ago and so it is now.
As anyone knows who has taken an American literature course in high school or college, “Moby Dick” is about Ahab, the whaling ship captain and his search for the great white whale Moby-Dick, the giant beast that took off one of Ahab’s legs many years ago. The encounter turned Ahab into a crazed man obsessed with destroying the whale, a creature Ahab considers the embodiment of evil in the world.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren.
The story begins in the mid 19th century in the New England whaling town of Nantucket, but spends most of the narrative on the whaling ship Pequod, with Ahab commanding a crew of 33, all accepting his challenge to find and kill the white whale.
Adapter-director David Caitlin faced a daunting task in converting the dense novel, a combination of storytelling and philosophy/theology, into a viable work for the stage. But Caitlin has succeeded wondrously in transferring the printed page into a production that is a unique blend of realistic and lyrical prose and persuasive physicality.
Caitlin masterfully portrays life on the open sea within the limited space of the Lookingglass. He has managed to preserve the novel as an adventure story without shortchanging its complexities as a symbolic and metaphorical exploration of good and evil. He even makes room for a verbal disquisition on the various types of whales in the sea. All this within a playing time of about 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions.
Caitlin’s script reduces the Pequod crew to seven men, including”--Ahab and Ishmael, the narrator. He also injects a trio of “Fates”—three young women who play assorted realistic and fantastical roles and act as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the evening. The set is dominated by an abstract backdrop of giant curved tubes that suggest the skeleton of a whale. Riggings descend from the rafters on both sides of the playing area. Planks rise and fall to represent small whaleboats entering the invisible sea and returning to the ship.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
The costumes and makeup authentically replicate the look of whaling life during the mid 19th century. Add some spectacular lighting and sound effects and you have a production that envelops the audience in the world of the novel, sometimes realistically and sometimes expressionistically.
The Lookingglass ensemble is joined by members of The Actors Gymnasium, a frequent partner with the company in many of its one-of-a-kind athletic works. One stirring scene portrays the harpoonist Queequeg trying to save the crew member Cabaco who has fallen into the sea during a panic seizure. The two sinuously writhe up and down a hanging rope simulating a rescue that’s a high level circus act while firmly in place within the narrative.
In another vivid scene, the crew mimes an attack on a group of whales, the simulated bloody carnage earning the viewer’s sympathy for the defenseless, if unseen, animals. The scene is climaxed by the hacking away of strips of blubber from a dead whale portrayed by one of the Fates suspended by her feet upside down while the removal of the whale flesh is represented by the unwinding of a long bolt of fabric that encloses the performer. And the final confrontation between the whale and Ahab and his crew is an astonishing display of light, sound, and action.
The cast is led by Nathan Hosner as Ahab, who doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into the play and gradually rises in intensity into a maddened figure of King Lear magnitude. Jamie Abelson returns as Ishmael (in evening performances only), the narrator who holds the story together, accessibly delivering Melville’s often purple prose Another alumni of the 2015 run is Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, feared as a savage barbarian in Nantucket but perhaps the wisest and most human character in the story. A memorable performance.
Kareem Bandealy is back as Starbuck, a man who dares to oppose Ahab in his suicidal quest for the whale but stays with the captain to the violent end. Raymond Fox likewise is back as Stubbs on the Pequod and as a heartbroken sea captain unsuccessfully begging Ahab for help in searching for the man’s 12-year old son lost in a small boat ripped from its master vessel by Moby-Dick.
The remainder of the ensemble consists of Cordelia Dewdney, Mattie Hawkinson, and Kelly Abell as the three Fates; Micah Figeroa as Cabaco; and Javen Ulambayer as Mungan, a crewman who executes dazzling trapezes-like movements high above the stage floor. They are all outstanding.
The design staff is made up of Courtney O’Neill (scenic design), Sully Ratke (costumes), William C. Kirkham (lighting), Rick Sims (sound design and composer), Isaac Schoepp (rigging design), Amanda Hermann (properties design), and Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (circus choreography). They have joined to create a memorable visual and aural event.
“Moby Dick” may be this theater’s most ambitious project, and there have been plenty of them. Aside from solving the many difficulties in dramatization set by Melville’s novel, there was the question of whether there was an audience for a long play with its ventures into philosophical and religious territory, not to mention the extraordinary demands made on the stamina of the actors. It was a high risk proposition, succeeding both artistically and commercially. Not to be missed.
The show gets a rating of 4 stars. June 2017
“Moby Dick” runs through September 3 at the Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $80. Call 312 337 0665 or visit lookingglasstheater.org.
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