Chicago Theater Review: MOBY DICK (remount at Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 18, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t keep a good cetacean down. Buoyed by the success of their 2015 inaugural production and national tour, Lookingglass Theatre Company (in association with The Actors Gymnasium) has re-raised the Leviathan. Herman Melville’s exploration of mutual evil indicts both the obsessed, increasingly inhumane Captain Ahab (“Vengeance is mine!”) and his albino nemesis Moby Dick, a huge sperm whale whose whiteness incarnates evil more than darkness could (as seen in the polar bear, blizzards, Donald Trump, and a certain shark).

Pulling out all possible theatrical stops, adaptor David Catlin’s pile-driving dramatization of the 1851 novel employs elaborate ship/theater rigging, a whalebone “corset” embracing the proscenium, billowing seas of silk, a rising wall of white canvas, model ships to suggest real ones, a typhoon of sound effects, and a harpy-like chorus of three Sea Fates—to immense effect. Just the “Nantucket sleigh ride” alone—hammocks-turned-whaleboats swinging from above as they surge through the sea—is wonderment enough. Designers Courtney O’Neill (set), Sully Ratke (costumes), Rick Sims (sound and score), William C. Kirkham (lights), Isaac Schoepp (rigging), Amanda Herrmann (properties) and circus choreographer (Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi) bring their arts to seven peaks.

Lookingglass’ nearly three-hour oceanic extravaganza is a fact-based odyssey capped by a South Sea showdown. As always, it’s narrated by sole survivor Ishmael (Jamie Abelson, alternating with Walter Owen Briggs), the author’s surrogate and the horrified observer of a seafaring quest that congeals into sheer terror.

It’s not blubber, ambergris, whale oil, fashionable ribs, or scrimshaw that Ahab seeks for his New Bedford employers. He’s after the harpooned heart of the monstrous mammal that ate his leg and, like Captain Hook’s crocodile, wants the rest. Looking like an Old Testament patriarch or John Brown on the scaffold, a haunted, haggard and stentorian Nathan Hosner invokes the Devil as he embodies implacable and unthinking retribution. To get it he’ll weaponize the Pequod into a flying fury, ignoring pity and mercy to skewer a sea serpent.

Moby Dick, as I stated in the previous review, is a tricky show, earnestly indulging Melville’s melodrama to histrionic heights (which some silly souls in the reopening audience found embarrassingly emotional). It offers incongruous humor, as when Raymond Fox’s Captain Boomer, who lost an arm to M.B., all but creates a support group for seagoing amputees. It also teems with emblematic, larger-than-life characters—the consciously doomed first mate Starbuck (Kareem Bandealy); oafish seaman Stubbs (Fox); crazed rigger Cabaco (Micah Figueroa); muscular Mungun (Javen Ulambayer); and, especially, the royal Polynesian warrior—and coffin-maker—Queeqeg (Anthony Fleming III, an icon of endurance). Then there are the deliverers of destiny—three maenads/whales/mermaids/wraiths (Kelly Abell, Mattie Hawkinson and Cordelia Dewdney), personifications of the many extremes in Melville’s sprawling epic.

Ten superb performers play eighteen characters caught up in a commercial venture gone toxic. Their reactions to this nautical nightmare mirror the multifaceted responses of all mortals beset with folly and fear. At the piteous end, Moby Dick culminates in a homesickness that can only be quenched in the deep.

Catlin’s crew deliver a thinking thriller worth a second sail.

photos by Liz Lauren

Moby Dick
Lookingglass Theatre Company
in association with The Actors Gymnasium
Water Tower Water Works
821 N. Michigan Ave.
ends on September 3, 2017
for tickets, call (312) 337-0665
or visit Lookingglass
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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