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James Abelson

Moby Dick Spins and Soars at Arena Stage


“[T]here is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” 

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Moby Dick, now playing at Arena Stage, is filled with mind-blowing special effects, but not the computer-generated kind ubiquitous in action films. Instead, we have actors who take full advantage of an intricate stage set which allows them to climb, twirl, and soar, while chasing, and then battling, Captain Ahab’s nemesis, the great white whale known as Moby Dick. This is a thrilling theater experience, bringing to life Herman Melville’s classic story. Ahab, who lost a leg during his last encounter with the whale, is obsessed with finding and killing the beast, his thirst for vengeance irrational, placing his crew’s lives in danger. It’s a cautionary tale with a message that continues to find relevance, no matter the time and place.

Lookingglass’s production, adapted and directed by David Catlin, debuted in Chicago and comes to Washington, D.C., after a run in Atlanta. Except for a few substitutions, the cast remains intact and obviously has hit its stride. This is an incredibly talented ensemble, delving into their characters, even when required to deliver lines while hanging from the ships’ masts, represented by a circular medal construction that mimics a whale’s ribcage.


James Abelson and Anthony Fleming III

James Abelson begins the action by delivering the novel’s most famous line: “Call me Ishmael.” Down on his luck, he decides to ship out and travels to the wealthy whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Having missed the ferry that would have taken him to Nantucket, he spends the night at the Spouter Inn, sharing a bed with Queequeg, a pagan with unusual culinary desires. “I suppose it better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian,” Ishmael says. Strange bedfellows, indeed. The two soon become unlikely good friends. Anthony Fleming III, sporting numerous tattoos, is riveting as Queequeg.

The three “Fates,” played by Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster, are a menacing presence, foreshadowing what awaits those who cast their lot with Captain Ahab on the Pequod. (Read the interview with the three actresses.) While Ishmael weighs his decision to join Ahab’s crew, the trio runs down the whalers who have died. “There is so much death in this business of whaling,” Ishmael says. “But still …I must go.”


Christopher Donahue and Walter Owen Briggs

As Ahab, Christopher Donahue is a formidable presence. Without tipping over into caricature, he captures Ahab’s obsession to seek revenge on the whale, a steely determination that teeters on insanity. “Vengeance on a dumb animal?,” the first mate, Starbuck (Walter Owen Briggs), tells Ahab. “That unthinking whale took your leg from blind instinct, sir. What you propose is…blasphemous, sir.” Hobbling around on stage with a false leg, Donahue’s Ahab is both threatening and vulnerable. He does eventually give in to the demand by Starbuck, to go after another whale to fill up the ship’s barrels with oil, but that’s a temporary diversion from the main mission.


Cordelia Dewdney and Javen Ulambayar

Throughout the production, the acrobatic feats are terrific. (The cast worked with the Actors Gymnasium in Chicago.) When the men take the whale boats to sea, they stand on wooden platforms suspended from ropes that swing back and forth, nearly over the audience. Javen Ulambayar, a skilled circus performer, makes good use of those skills as the sailor Mungun, particularly in the scene where he meets his demise. One of the Fates, Dewdney, also plays a downed whale; she’s hoisted up, the layers of her clothing, representing blubber, carefully stripped away to reveal a cage.

The final battle with the white whale is surprising and thrilling. (Warning: these scenes include loud noises and bright lights.) When the sea finally claims Ahab and his crew in a scene that is both clever and beautiful, Ishmael is the only one to survive. “I alone am escaped to tell thee. Call me Ishmael.”

Photos by Greg Mooney

Moby Dick
Kreeger Stage
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Through December 24, 2016