Lookingglass ‘Moby Dick’ Review — Dramatic Adaptation Adrift on a Sea of Spectacle

 

Kareem Bandealy, Christopher Donahue

Now in its 27th season, Lookingglass Theatre Company prides itself on metaphoric storytelling, spectacles that give audiences visceral access to classics like Mary Zimmerman’s stirring adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In theory, that approach should harpoon audiences into Lookingglass’s world premiere of Moby Dick, adapted and directed by ensemble member David Catlinfrom the 1851 novel by Herman Melville. But in practice, the spectacle threatens to drown the narrative, nearly washing away some of the triumphs of the production.

 

 

Anthony Fleming III as Queequeq

 

Those triumphs include ensemble member Anthony Fleming III’s Jeff-worthy turn as Queequeg, the tattooed Polynesian harpooner who shares the only remaining bed in coastal New Bedford with Melville’s iconic narrator, Ishmael. Fleming inhabits his character with a physicality that commands attention, even when he is absolutely still.

 

 

From top: Emma Cadd, Christopher Donahue, Anthony Fleming III

 

Another asset is the production’s collaboration with The Actors Gymnasium, whose self-stated mission is to encourage “ground-breaking theatrical exploration” and “original, daring works of circus-theatre.” The performers use designer Courtney O’Neill’s striking set, the ribcage of a whale that encompasses the entire theater, as their jungle gym: climbing, plunging and dangling from it (rigging by Isaac Shoepp) to dizzying effect.

 

 

 

The more obvious metaphor for Moby Dick might have been the use of water. After all, Lookingglass is housed within Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works, and the company has used water effectively in several of its productions, including Metamorphoses in 1998 and Eastland: The Musical in 2012. But Moby Dick is about much more than a sea voyage. It tackles obsession, religion, community and alienation — mental gymnastics aptly expressed in physical gymnastics.

 

 

Jamie Abelson, Anthony Fleming III

 

But simply because the troupe has all that rigging at its disposal doesn’t mean it should be used throughout. There are moments when the spectacle overwhelms the story, and with a running time over two-and-a half hours, this Moby Dick could do with less blubber. Yes, the book is long one, close to 600 pages. And in fact the creative team has done a thoughtful job of choosing what to present, not only the dramatic highlights of the tale but also important chapters like “Cetology” (the zoology and natural history of the whale), deceptively catalog-like but layered with ambiguities. But the spectacle itself takes up time without always advancing the story, especially in the first of the three acts.

 

 

Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

 

Some judicious cuts would punch up the parts that work best. Those include the aforementioned “Cetology,” presented by a woman on stilts that punctuate her speech while mimicking Captain Ahab’s peg leg. Wooden slabs suspended on pulleys effectively capture the motion of whaleboats hastening to their prey. The harpooned whale is flensed of its blubber as represented by a woman hung from her ankles, her skirt spiraling away until only the ribbing of her petticoat remains with its glistening (whale-bone!) structure. Most successful of all is the image of a woman’s black, swirling skirt as it envelops the stage like the ocean swallowing the Pequod on its doomed mission. Carolyn Sullivan’s costume designs and properties by Amanda Herrmann — including twinkling whale-oil lanterns — aptly support the visual metaphors.

 

 

Monica West, Kasey Foster, Emma Cadd

 

Other conceits work less well. Representing the leviathan at the end as three women in white muslin hoop dresses and bizarre makeup is not only anticlimactic but also undermines the simple enigmatic beauty of the unfurled white fabric that skims over the audience just beforehand.

 

 

 

Based on a book where female characters are confined to land, this Moby Dick makes extensive use of a trio of women — ensemble members Emma Cadd, Kasey Foster and Monica West — who represent a sort of Greek chorus of the Fates and sirens of the sea.

 

 

Jamie Abelson as Ishmael

 

Christopher Donahue plays Ahab with enough restraint to avoid the over-the-top madman that might otherwise mark the role, and artistic associate Kareem Bandealy makes for an engaging Starbuck. Ensemble members Raymond Fox (Stubb)and Javen Ulambayar (Tashtego) round out the capable crew. The part of Ishmael is more problematic, and Jamie Abelson misses the mark. His instinct to underplay the part is probably a good one, but as the narrator who frames Melville’s tale from its famous opening line — “Call me Ishmael” — he is central to the story, and the audience needs a deeper understanding of what drives him.

 

 

Moby Dick

Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago

Through August 28, 2015

Tickets: $40 - $80 (discounts for students and groups) at Lookingglass Theatre or (312) 337-0665

 

Photos: Liz Lauren

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