Reviewed by Terry Morgan
South Coast Repertory/Segerstrom Stage
Through Feb. 19th
If one has the audacity to take on the leviathan of American literature, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, one had best be able to do justice to the source material and also have something new to bring to it. Thankfully, the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production (which mysteriously removes the hyphen from the title) fulfills these requirements, respecting the text but also creating a thriving creature of the theatrical deep in director David Catlin’s often dazzling adaptation.
In mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts, Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) is looking to change his life. After a tense evening sharing a bunk with the cannibal seaman Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), he signs on to the whaler Pequod, under the dubious captaincy of the obsessed Ahab (Christopher Donahue). Onboard, it quickly becomes apparent that Ahab is only interested in killing “Moby Dick,” (a white whale that took one of his legs years ago), despite the pleadings of his reasonable second-in-command, Starbuck (Walter Owen Briggs), that they return to shore.
Abelson is fine as Ishmael, but his role as the narrator gives him few of the story’s memorable moments. Fleming is convincing as the imposing harpooner Queequeg, enriching the role with moments of self-deprecating humor. Donahue tries hard but doesn’t quite possess the epic fire needed to limn the legendary Ahab, and comes off more like an addled vagrant essaying Richard III. Briggs adds a sense of urgency as the decent Starbuck, his growing desperation helping to create a feeling of impending doom.
Catlin’s direction boasts many impressive elements: among them, his brilliant use of three actresses (Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney and Kasey Foster, all excellent) as speaking characters, props and sound effects and his staging of actors as they climb up and down the rigging or sway onstage as if on a rocking ship.
He achieves at least a couple of coups de théâtre: a simple effect where it’s as if the audience is being plunged underwater, and a stunning sequence in which the inverted dress of an actress suspended from the ceiling is stripped of its fabric, like a whale being rendered for its oil.
Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi’s aerial/acrobatic choreography adds notably to the show, particularly in a scene where a sailor writhes aloft on ropes as if drowning in midair.
This isn’t a perfect show — the idea that women in hoop skirts holding umbrellas can be symbols for whales is more twee than effective. But there is so much in this production that does work — so much theatrical magic — that it’s well worth the drive down to Costa Mesa to see it.
South Coast Repertory/Segerstrom Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues. – Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.- Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat,. 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m;. through Feb. 19. www.scr.org. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.