Theatre Reviews

The first line of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” is right up there with Hamlet’s iconic speech opener, “To be or not to be.” It’s also the first line of the play adaptation of “Moby Dick” currently on stage at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Actor Walter Owen Briggs, set the hook with an arresting, extended pause between “Call me” and “Ishmael,” thereby establishing the unrelenting, compelling, tractor beam of a story of human obsession and an unrelenting natural world.

In the realm of literary adaptations, few works pose as formidable a challenge as Melville’s seminal masterpiece. Yet, as adapted and directed by David Catlin, “Moby Dick” is a voyage that is a feat of creative brilliance. I predict this production will be one of the pinnacles of 2024’s theater scene. To borrow a line from the B-52s, it’s as big as a whale and it has more than set sail.

From the outset, Catlin’s adaptation captures the essence of Melville’s epic saga, drawing the audience into a world teeming with moral ambiguity, mythic resonance and the elemental power of the ocean. Courtney O’Neill’s evocative set design, Carolyn “Sully” Sullivan’s expressive costumes, and William C. Kirkham’s atmospheric lighting converge to create a visceral and immersive theatrical experience. Sound designer and composer Rick Sims adds another layer of atmosphere with music that mirrors the death-haunted essence of the open seas, ingeniously complemented by billowing skirts that evoke the vastness and unpredictability of the ocean.

Together, they form a visual and aural tapestry that mirrors the rich symbolism and metaphorical depth of the source material. The audience is transported from the confines of the theater to the boundless expanse of the open sea, where the line between reality and myth blurs into a watery oblivion.

Kevin Adoussou’s portrayal of Queequeg, the enigmatic, tattooed harpooneer, serves as a compelling anchor amidst the swirling currents of the narrative. His bond with Briggs’s Ishmael provides a poignant counterpoint to the tempestuous quest of Captain Ahab, brought to life with haunting intensity by Christopher Donahue.

Donahue’s Ahab is a figure of brooding complexity, his singular obsession with the elusive white whale driving him to madness. Yet, amidst the chaos of his quest, there are moments of humor, profound clarity and insight, particularly in his interactions with Queequeg, Ishmael and Starbuck, played by an appropriately caffeinated Felipe Carrasco. Cabaco, played with intense innocence by Micah Figueroa (and a sometimes perplexing accent), drowns in a haunting aerial performance. These moments serve as a reminder of the human cost of unchecked ambition, echoing themes that resonate far beyond the confines of the stage.

There are a few moments of minor characters being overplayed for comic and other relief, but they are thankfully, minor. Otherwise, Catlin’s direction is a masterful blend of poetic language and evocative staging, capturing the essence of Melville’s prose with breathtaking precision. The incorporation of physical theater and aerial acrobatics adds a dynamic energy to the production, evoking the elemental fury of the sea and the Herculean struggle of man against nature. But do not misunderstand the term “aerial acrobatics” to mean a Cirque du Soleil-style fish tale.

In this imaginative adaptation, the absence of women in the original text is cleverly subverted by the use of three female performers who seamlessly embody various roles, from wives and mothers to Sirens and even the sea itself. The program describes these actors as the Fates, yet their role transcends mere Greek Chorus-style narration. They intone evocative passages from Melville’s prose, capturing the allure and peril of the sailor’s life.

Portrayed by Bethany Thomas, Maggie Kettering and Ayana Strutz, these three Fates slither into the narrative, leaving lasting consequences on both characters and plot.
Like spectral puppeteers, the actors weave in and out of the action, exerting a haunting influence reminiscent of zombie-like ghosts. Their multifaceted performances extend beyond the titular Fates, as they inhabit additional female characters, seemingly possessing them as they interact with the male-dominated world of the story. Later, the trio unites to embody the enigmatic Moby Dick himself.

One of the most harrowing moments in this production when one of the female characters portrays a harpooned whale being flayed, or flensed, to remove the blubber or outer from the animal’s meat. This moment and a couple of others, provide a message about mankind’s wasteful exploitation of natural resources. If footage of baby seals being clubbed disturbs you, prepare to close your eyes during this scene. It’s that unforgettably visceral.

“Moby Dick” at The Rep is more than a stage production—it is a transcendent experience that speaks to the universal themes of human ambition, mortality, and the inexorable march of time. It is a testament to the power of live theater to illuminate the darkest recesses of the human psyche and inspire awe in the face of the unknown. If, at the end of a theatrical performance, you want to feel like you’ve been ridden hard and put up wet (in all the best ways), then this “Moby Dick” is for you. And, even clocking in at close to three hours (with two intermissions), it’s still shorter than reading the novel.

“Moby Dick” runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts on the Webster University campus through February 25.

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