In the annals of American literature, most agree that Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, written by Herman Melville in 1851, is one of the greatest masterpieces of all-time. The classic story follows Ishmael telling the tale of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler the Pequod, seeking revenge on the white whale that bit off his leg at the knee.
While the story has been brought to life on stage by everyone from Cameron Mackintosh to Orson Welles to Morris Panych, a new production of Moby Dick by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre takes the adventure to new heights.
Arena Stage will present Lookingglass’ high-flying stage adaptation, combining elements of great visual storytelling with physical storytelling, with much of the story told in the air thanks to incredible acrobatic and trapeze work by The Actors Gymnasium.
Moby Dick‘s director, David Catlin, is a founding ensemble member of Lookingglass which won the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.
“Lookingglass is interested in theater that uses physicality, maybe some elements of circus, and sometimes big ideas,” he says. “People go see theater because they want to understand something about what it is to be a human being. We as humans perceive the world as more than just an auditory experience. It’s important to give our audiences theater stories and tell them in such a way that they can get experience it in a visceral way and a cinematic way.”
But make no mistake about it, the high-flying spectacle doesn’t distract from the deep story that is Moby Dick, it only adds to it.
“The circus-like atmosphere always serves the story and it becomes a special way to tell that story,” Catlin says. “The idea that we can turn the air into water and feel like we are under water was a compelling idea. The notion of flying around the sea seemed like a great opportunity to incorporate into our storytelling.”
Catlin did a great deal of research on Melville and learned some things about the author that will be unfamiliar to most people. For instance, the book was put on hold for a while after Melville spent some time with an unknown author at the time—Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“He was interested in doing a whaling adventure and about halfway through writing it, he told his editor the book would be out by fall, but then he got invited to a dinner on a mountain in Massachusetts, and they were sent scattering to wait out a storm,” he says. “He got to talking to Hawthorne about the craft and the possibilities that writing can be.”
Once the storm cleared and Melville headed down the mountain and read some of Hawthorne’s work, he decided to reread Shakespeare and Virgil and suddenly, his idea for Moby Dick changed.
“The theory is that Ahab emerged in this second pass,” Catlin says. “Plus, all of these theatrical references started to show up in the book. There’s a line about a stage manager, a prophecy akin to the Scottish play, MacBeth, and even the language used in the novel feels very dramatic.”
November 18 – December 24, 2016
Details and tickets
The theater and the sea have long had a symbiotic connection. The stage is called a deck, the people a crew, sailor superstitions abound, and the catwalks and mechanisms for lowering and raising the curtains are similar to what they have on ships.
“There are a lot of theories that in the olden days, if you were a sailor you might get work in a theater,” Catlin says. “I find that connection fascinating.”
Surprisingly, Catlin only recently connected with the novel. As a student at Northwestern, he took an American Literature class and Moby Dick was part of the course work.
“I was a poor student and I didn’t read it. I put it off until the week before exams and had to catch up, so with the help of espresso and NoDoz, I stayed up for 48 hours and read it straight through in an over-caffeinated haze,” he says. “Something about that exhaustion that I had opened me up to the weirdness and the beauty of the story. I’m kicking myself now for not going through it with the aid of an expert. It’s a great story and I loved it all.”
Catlin especially loves the deep characters and the tangents the story takes, which he calls “maddening at times,” and when he was presented with the opportunity to do a version of Moby Dick like this, he was immediately up for the challenge.
“Theater is a place that we as an audience can come together in a communal way and suspen our disbelief,” he says. “People are willing to believe we are suddenly underwater and there is a whale on stage. That, to me, is a magical thing.”