“This is the story of a man,” says Jim Lasko as he brings a small hand puppet from behind his back. It’s Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal sea captain, with wild King Lear hair. “And a whale.” Enter a mean little sperm whale with pale white skin, a vicious stare, and a toothy jaw that opens and shuts with a satisfying chomp.

Whale and Ahab survey each other warily, and then the whale goes for Ahab. “Waaahhh!!!” Ahab fights back. “Eeeuugghhh!” And the two go at each other like Punch and Judy, with Lasko making all kinds of little-boys-playing-army noises: “Ugh! Kssshhhhhh! Argh! Ohhhhhh!”

Lasko, the director of Redmoon Theater’s puppet production of Moby-Dick, performs this exaggerated version of the show’s beginning more for his partner’s benefit than mine. Blair Thomas, the guiding light behind Redmoon Theater, stands next to him, laughing away.

For five years Thomas has been working on and off to adapt Melville’s novel, staging several workshop productions along the way–on North Avenue beach, in Grant Park, at the Rhino Fest. And now, two weeks before opening their full-fledged treatment of the story, the enormity of their enterprise is making them a little giddy.

“Naturally we put the biggest, hardest puppet off till last,” says Thomas with a nervous laugh. At the foot of the Pegasus Players’ stage five puppet builders, all dressed in black shirts and pants, are bent over the huge black rings–aluminum covered with paper mache–that will make up Moby Dick’s ribs.

This Moby Dick is one of several whale puppets of various sizes that will be used in the production. But it isn’t just the size of this production that makes Lasko and Thomas nervous–it’s also the space itself. Used to performing puppet spectacles (such as their winter and summer pageants) in odd locations–beaches, parks, or community centers–they say the idea of working in a real auditorium feels foreign.

Thomas says, “We came into the Pegasus space and we thought, Oh wow, a huge flat stage! We can use that. A lighting system! We can use that. And, wow, flies! We can use those to lift set pieces. A backstage area, we can use that as–a backstage area.”

The idea for Redmoon’s Moby-Dick began in 1989 with a series of discussions between Thomas and actor-playwright Jeff Dorchen. “Blair asked me if I wanted to write the show with him,” Dorchen recalls. “I am known as a Melville-ophile, especially a Moby-Dick-ophile. I actually put a mention of Moby-Dick in every play I write. We started meeting about the project. I would come over to his house and he would make me breakfast and we would write a bit.”

While they initially staged it on North Avenue beach, Dorchen and Thomas didn’t realize the noise from the waves and wind would drown out the actors’ voices. That disappointed Dorchen, who had tried to include as much of Melville’s language in the adaptation as he could.

A Melville contemporary, critic Evert Duyckinck, called Moby-Dick “an intellectual chowder” because the novel was a compendium of so many ideas and writing styles and was at once an allegory, adventure story, and remarkably accurate account of the whaling industry. The Redmoon production is a chowder too, combining many different puppetry styles.

The show includes hand puppets, Japanese Bunraku puppets, Indonesian shadow puppets, flat puppets in the 19th-century toy theater tradition, and even a puppet on stilts that Lasko and Thomas developed for this production. The backstage area is packed with puppets–tiny puppets, human-size puppets, gigantic puppets, puppet whales, puppet whaling ships, puppet harpoonists, puppet harpoons, even puppets specially designed to put on a tiny puppet show.

“I was telling Blair,” Lasko jokes, “we have to do three maritime shows after this, we have so many puppets.”

Previews of Moby-Dick are offered this Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 at Pegasus Players in the O’Rourke Performing Arts Center, Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson. There’s an actors night this Tuesday at 7, and it opens Wednesday at 7:30. The play will then run through March 19, with shows at 8 Thursday through Saturday and at 2 on Sunday. Tickets cost $15 to $19.50. Call 271-2638 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.