When David Catlin’s bold, captivating version of Moby-Dick debuted at Lookingglass Theatre in 2015, it was praised by then Reader critic Zac Thompson as a “dazzling” spectacle. After its wildly successful local run came a national tour. Now the production’s back in Chicago, in all its acrobatic glory, and having seen it twice, I can safely say that for sheer visual splendor, breathtaking design, and epic storytelling, there’s nothing to rival it now or in recent memory.
The play’s anchored by magisterial performances. Based, of course, on the novel by Herman Melville, it’s the story of Captain Ahab (Nathan Hosner), whose vendetta against a great white whale takes his crew of outcast sailors around the whole known world in hot pursuit of their master’s obsession. Hosner’s beady, malevolent eyes peer out above a scar that runs down through his entire bulk. Hobbling on one leg (the production opts for a prosthetic boot instead of the traditional peg leg), he’s sometimes a tad too wriggly, undermining the authority of his booming, bellowing voice. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 86: “In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”) Nevertheless, Ahab exacts total obedience from his ragtag men, with one exception: his prudent first mate, Starbuck (the superb Kareem Bandealy), who though firm and unyielding to his last breath is nevertheless undone by Ahab’s preternatural fury.
The scenes between these two titanic opposites are the dramatic high points of the play. Bandealy never squirms beneath Hosner’s deranged gaze, but confronts him head-on; he feels no fear or hatred, only pity. When the murderous Ahab starts at seeing the reflection of his abandoned wife and child in Starbuck’s eyes, we see what a bond there is between these two men leagues from home.
And then there’s the harpooner Queequeg, from the island of Kokovoko (Moby-Dick, Chapter 12: “It is not down on any map; true places never are”). Anthony Fleming III deftly steers his Queequeg away from a caricatured “savage,” making him instead the embodiment of natural nobility (granted, itself a cliche). The story’s narrator, Ishmael (Jamie Abelson, with Walter Owen Briggs handling matinees), finds himself irresistibly drawn to him, and they become “bosom friends.” (In an inspired bit of stage business, the gestures in Queequeg’s ablutions to his little idol Yojo insinuate themselves into Ishmael’s Christmas Eve prayers.)
The sea, for Melville, was masculine: sharks, whales, and swordfish, he says, are “the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.” Not so here. The sea, and even eventually the whale, is represented by a trio of Fates (Kelly Abell, Mattie Hawkinson, and Cordelia Dawdney), who weave their way ominously through scenes, singing ethereally and generally evoking an ever-present, oceanic, female counterpoint to the male energies of the hunt. Twice during the play, in one of the production’s most arresting images, the sea billows out over the entire stage in the form of a Fate’s massively unfurled blue skirt (the costume design is by Sully Ratke). When a harpooner named Mungun (Javen Ulambayar) plummets into the breakers from his perch on the mainmast, the Fates swirl around him, kiss him, and tell him to drink deeper as he drowns. That both tenderness and death are represented as female, overwhelming and enveloping the male drive toward violence and survival, is just one of many suggestive revisions of the Melvillian universe in Catlin’s adaptation.
The aerial work in this production (which is presented in association with the Actors Gymnasium) is remarkable—and remarkably effective. Clambering up the concentric wooden circles that evoke the ship’s masthead and spars and swaying yards above the deck, the actors seem to defy death. A few of the long trapeze passages feel simply decorative. But in a play obsessed with the impossible, it makes a certain sense that its characters fly. v