“Call me Ishmael.” The first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most memorable in literature. Published in 1851, the novel’s themes – obsession, greed, duty, friendship, and, of course, death – remain relevant. Two films have depicted the face off between man and whale, the 1956 version directed by John Huston, with Gregory Peck as the ship’s Captain Ahab, and 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, with Chris Helmsworth as first mate, Owen Chase.
This holiday season theatergoers in Washington, D.C. will experience something totally different – a stage version that uses daring trapeze and acrobatic work, rather than computer generated special effects, to recreate Melville’s spell-binding story. The production is the brainchild of David Catlin, a founding ensemble member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. After runs in Chicago and Atlanta, Moby Dick will play in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre from November 18 through December 24. The set, designed by Courtney O’Neill, includes a portion of the ship’s deck and what mimics a whale ribcage as the ship’s masts. As much action takes place above the stage as on it, as the actors climb, twirl, swing, and hang from the rigging.
According to Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, “The story just doesn’t come alive in this production, it flies in the air all around you. Prepare to be amazed.”
While there are only two minor female figures in the novel, the stage version includes three actresses, whose characters are identified ominously as “Fate.” We had the opportunity to ask these actresses – Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster – about the production and their roles.
“I actually saw an earlier version of this production at Northwestern University before hearing about it,” said Foster. “When I saw the women playing the powerful role of Fate, I fell in love.” Abell called the play’s women, “pretty essential and antithetical to the men: the force that gives life, and that which takes it away.”
What do the women as Fate represent? “One could see the women as representing the whale, but as an actor I prefer to perceive that, as a Fate, I have the power to become the very things that influence the sailors,” said Dewdney. “Thus, the Fates create and control the inevitable, but are simultaneously swallowed up by the inevitable themselves.” Added Abell, “It’s a nice dichotomy we get to play with: human characters who create actual emotional or intellectual obstacles to the men – and the metaphors that haunt and drive them.”
Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Cordelia Dewdney as Fate
Dewdney said she first read Moby Dick for an American literature class her freshman year in college. “I had a wonderful teacher who dressed up as the characters or writers of the books we were reading, and for Moby she donned all white!” she said. “I was most struck by unstoppable movement of the storyline. The writing has a unique circuitous path that, no matter how many winding twists it takes, always falls to the chase of the men’s inevitable fates.”
Abell said she first listened to Moby Dick on tape while driving to and from high school. “I was struck by the incredibly detailed descriptions that fill the book, the minutia of rigging and whale parts and hooping spare barrels, the monotony of those mundane tasks that made up a whaler’s life,” she said. “At 18, I think I was frustrated at how little happened in the book, you know, where’s the romance, where’s the intrigue, where are the women, but coming back to the story as an adult, I see my own fixation on the small details of my life that Melville so beautifully captured. The minutia is the stuff that makes up a life, is it not?”
After a performance in Atlanta, the actors met with a group of high school students and one young woman offered her interpretation, that “man can become so swept up in his pursuit of x – money, fortune, fame, power – that he loses perspective, that he loses sight of his own human purpose, and that he forsakes his connection with humanity in the wake of his frenzy,” said Abell. “I wish we could bring her along as a spokesperson!”
Dewdney noted that while the play illustrates the prejudice and racism that existed during Melville’s time, Moby Dick is also about friendship, including the close bond that exists between Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, and Ishmael, a white sailor. “Once they leave the society that separates them, they find that the ship binds them,” observed Foster. Abell said that early in the play, Ahab invites the men – “Pagans and Christians alike” – to be equals. “I see the quality of the diverse crew as essential to our production,” she said. “But it feels more about what it is to be essentially human, those truths which resonate most deeply.”
The actors prepared for their physically demanding roles by working with instructors from Chicago’s Actors Gymnasium. “Many of us came into the production with dance or physical theatre training, but many of the circus elements were very new to me,” said Abell. “In Act 2, the women are incorporated into a straps routine, including a trick which took me countless failed attempts to master. Turns out that quick thinking while spinning in mid-air is not something that comes as easily to me as panic does. Cordelia [Dewdnwy] has the most circus tricks of us all – and she handles them all like a true pro.”
In addition, the three women had to learn to work together as a team, since they are often moving together, ostensibly, in the sea, perhaps representing the whale. “These are some amazing women I work with who both think and work deeply and honestly,” said Abell. “During rehearsals we had some time to work as a trio – how to move as one unit, how to sing as one unit, how to feel cohesive as the `Fate’ of all these men. We’ve become experts with peripheral vision and speaking at the same time.”
The production has received rave reviews wherever it has been staged. “Oh, we are so curious [to see how audiences in D.C. react],” said Abell. What they do know is that the story of one man’s relentless pursuit of a whale continues to resonate. “One of the hardest things to do in this life, is to `let go’,” said Foster. “Whether loosening your grip on the way things used to be, or letting go of a loved one, the concept of moving on often feels impossible. Ahab has a grip, stronger than anyone, and it brings him to his death. Everyone can relate to Ahab, because we all understand the feeling of holding on too firmly.”
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Adapted and dirceted by David Caitlin from the book by Herman Melville
Co-production with the Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory
Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
November 18 through December 24, 2016
Photos by Greg Mooney
Top photo: Kasey Foster as Fate