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Moby Dick ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Co-production alliances benefit all theatregoers and the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Arena Stage proves the point.  It saves theatres a heavy outlay by not having to mount expensive, new productions – plus shorter rehearsal time saves space and the actors already know their blocking and lines.  In addition, these productions come with critics’ raves.

Which brings me to Moby Dick – one of the most splendid and spectacular, alluringly bizarre plays I’ve reviewed to date.  Imagine, if you will, the physicality of Cirque du Soleil driving Melville’s major opus, coupled with all the theatrics of a Greek tragicomedy.  You can’t?  Neither could I until I saw this eye-popping interpretation of the classic tale of a whale.  Theatregoers will be talking about this production for years to come.

Using the parable of Jonah as fugitive from God, a preacher inspires Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) to find his soul through a whaling voyage.  Lured on by red-haired Puritan furies in funereal Victorian dresses and tight chignons (they later morph into a chorus of sea sirens in spectral gowns) the hapless fellow soon finds himself at the Spouter’s Inn among a rowdy group of drunken Nantucket scrimshanders bellowing sea chanties and preparing for passage on the fated Pequod.

Director David Catlin, who adapted the play from the book, delivers a Dante-inspired version replete with a structure of ivory-hued masts curving inward like the narrowing rib cage of a whale.  Sailors shinny up the masts and dangle from the ship’s rigging in daredevil fashion and lifeboats seesaw above.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Notwithstanding the spectacular acrobatics, there is the underlying story of the vengeful Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) – his Devil’s bargain to capture and kill the evil leviathan who bit off his leg – and Ishmael’s struggle to find his life’s purpose.

Woman is portrayed as not only the object that lures men to their deaths, but as the sea personified, and also as the whale itself.  They become a symbol of what must be captured, conquered and stripped of life.  In a particularly powerful scene, a woman is hung by her heels.  Her voluminous skirts trail down over her head rendering her faceless and exposing the whalebone structure of her petticoat.  Her flesh is summarily stripped away as if cleaning a fish.  It is the height of machismo culture.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Some of these dramatic visual elements, twice used to great effect by hundreds of yards of silken fabric billowing out like waves, are balanced by extraordinarily fierce acting, haunting music and, yes! hilarity, most especially in the character of Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), the savage outlier who becomes the catalyst for Ishmael’s voyage to manhood and redemption.

An outstanding production crew ties it all together with dramatic panache.  Costumes Sully Ratke; Aerial/Acrobatic Second City’s Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi; Set Designer Courtney O’Neill; Lighting Design William C. Kirkham; Sound Design/Original Music Rick Sims.

Highly recommended.  If I gave out stars this would be an entire constellation!

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

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