Review “Moby Dick” (Lookingglass Theatre): A Bookish Progression

541605_10152872848636345_4645810307222490568_nLookingglass Theatre, in association with The Actors Gymnasium, presents MOBY DICK.

I’ve had the privilege to see several unique and memorable “Moby Dick” productions in Chicago over the last few years.  The now dark The Building Stage told the classic with an Ishmael chorus.  The Chicago Mammals used an all-female cast to cleverly go after the great white whale. And Shattered Globe’s production, “The Whaleship Essex,” was the unforgettably, gut-wrenching true tale that the novel was based on.  Even House Theatre of Chicago got into the whale business with their theatrical lampoon, “Season on the Line.”   I enjoy the man vs whale tale.  And knowing Lookingglass’ adventurous and innovative spirit, I highly anticipated their storytelling of this masterpiece.

Three acts.  Two intermissions.  One whale.

I’m happy to report this show gets progressively better.  Although the third act is a visual spectacle from start to finish, act one starts out slow and tedious.  Adapter and director David Caitlin uses a series of monologues to establish the story.  The choice seems unnecessary given the public’s familiarity with the story.  And maybe I would have been prepared for a wordy adaptation at someplace like Writers  because showcasing the story and the writing is their mission.  But this is Lookingglass! Their core values are transformation and invention.  I want to see something happen.  I want a multiple sensory experience.  Instead, Act one is like going whale watching, not seeing any whales and having someone read from a book to describe the experience of seeing a whale.   It’s not the same.

Scenic Designer Courtney O’Neill creates a ship that looks like the bowels of a whale.  Steel supports curve like ribs over the wooden base of a stage.  These bone structures serve as the ship’s masts. The nimble ensemble scurry up to watch for whales.  They mirror the audience.  We are all watching for something to happen.  And for a long time, nothing happens. There is no connection tethering us to this voyage, these men.  The only real emotion I’m consumed with is impatience.

Act 2 brings more movement and less soliloquies.  Makeshift boats are made out of boards, ropes and pulleys.  The men simulate sailing after a whale.  They are suspended 10 feet above the stage.  The athleticism is engaging.  The stunts start to look like the circus-themed work of a Lookingglass adventure.

Throughout the show, a trio of women (Emma Cadd, Kasey Foster, Monica West) serve as the chorus.  Costumed by Carolyn Sullivan, the ladies are clad in black hoop skirt finery.  Initially, they play the crooning widow, crone and innkeeper.  They loom on the outskirts in the haunting, shadows.  As the voyage continues, they lose the dark, imposing casing.  They expose their white undergarments. The prominently featured hoopskirts match O’Neill’s whalebone set.  The women are now the character ‘fate.’ The men’s lives are wrapped up in the chorus’ presence.  This is beautifully illustrated in a silks movement at the top of Act 3.

Act 3 is a stunner.  It starts with the fate of Javen Ulambayer (Mungun).  He is tangled in silks and the chorus.  Ulambayer gracefully and skillfully performs his aerial dance of destiny.  Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi balances his human struggle with the erotic allure of letting go.  His departure from stage, escorted by Cadd, Foster and West, is disconcerting.  Emotion starts stirring on these previously stilled waters.  Something starts to happen and with an unexpected flourish.  The appearance of the whale and the actual shipwreck uses oversized shimmery, flowing fabrics. It’s dazzling! Act 3 is like the last 5 minutes of a fireworks show.  All the holding back in Act 1 and part of Act 2 gives way to a sheer spectacle of pageantry.

The voyage ends memorably.  And the audience, at my performance, reward the cast with a standing ovation.  I remained sitting.  I wanted more from the beginning, from Lookingglass.  I wanted the voyage to be unforgettable from Ishmael to Ishmael.

Running Time:  Two hours and thirty minutes with two intermissions

Adapted and Directed by Ensemble Member David Catlin
From the book by Herman Melville
Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm

Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm

Thru August 28th

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