Whale of a Tale @ Lookingglass

3 Stars out of 4

When Chicago’s esteemed Lookingglass Theatre takes on a classic tale to tell, the end product will always be a spectacle that will mash up movement, a visual sensibility, sound, music, aerial work by long standing partner Actors Gymnasium,and a signature methodology of storytelling that will be at once novel and at the same time as old as the Greeks, with a smattering of Dada-esque vaudeville thrown in for good measure. Lookingglass is a Chicago treasure, and a kind of all senses on board entree to many Great Books. The reprise of David Catlin’s award winning Moby Dick is a deeply satisfying recounting of this most American of novels, right after no less than Bob Dylan calls attention to the book’s compelling narrative of man, obsession, nature and tragedy. This Moby Dick is a quintessentially LookingGlassed production which means you settle back into your Water Tower seat and prepare to become immersed in a very good story.

The story begins and ends with Ishmael, played in evening performances by an earnest and well meaning Jamie Abelson. Ishmael has signed on to the Pequod, a whaling ship populated by an oddball crew. Catlin’s adaptation struggles a bit in Black Lives Matter America to square the racist plot with its allegorical and biblical meanings. So many of our classics have not aged well as we evolve to a more inclusive culture and its often an odd fit with twenty first century sensibilities. Catlin’s script pays some homage to the delightful verbiage of Melville and stays faithful to the book. The actors bring grace and depth: Anthony Fleming III’s Queequeg is a powerful character and he drives the plot forward without being a stock caricature.

The motley Pequod crew is led by Captain Ahab (a towering, glowering and sonorous Nathan Hosner), who pursues a giant whale beyond all reason. Many an honors English class has debated the why of Ahab’s obsession, and have come up with no better answers. In this telling the audience cruises along with the adventure of whaling as the plot, like a ball of yarn, winds out. The visual aspects of the story are as important as the verbal. As are the visceral: in the end when the whale attacks the Pequod, this cast manages to deliciously terrify the audience as well so that the inevitable death of Ahab and conclusion of the tragedy is cathartic. 

This production is shimmeringly beautiful: from the opening chants of the Fates ( hauntingly portrayed by Cordelia Dewdney, Kelley Abell and Mattie Hawkinson) to the devastating ending nearly three hours later. When you depart the theatre you will have lived an experience as much as heard a story.  If you don’t know the novel, you will know enough for a standardized test at the end of the show. But this show does not tell you what to think of this man versus nature battle. It is an exquisitely crafted visual and kinetic interpretation of the beloved novel, and as such is comfortable in a way I am not sure Melville would have liked.  Decide for yourself.  Watch.  

Moby Dick runs Wednesdays through Sundays through September 3, 2017 at Lookinglass Theatre inside Chicago’s Water Tower, at 821 North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast.  For tickets and information  call 312-337-0665 or go to www.lookingglasstheatre.org