Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Moby Dick
Lookingglass Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of The King and I

Kareem Bandealy, Jamie Abelson,
Anthony Fleming III, Raymond Fox, Micah Figueroa,
and Javen Ulembayar

Photo by Liz Lauren
Herman Melville's epic Moby Dick, with its story of an early 19th century whaling ship battling ocean storms and an 80-foot sperm whale, is certainly a challenge to visualize dramatically. Budget overages on the 1956 film version nearly sank its producing studio, the Mirisch Company. Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, a 2015 film dramatization of the real-life events that inspired Melville to write his novel presumably had an easier time of it in the age of CGI, but an even smarter approach may be just what David Catlin's stage production for Lookingglass Theatre does here.

Adapter-director Catlin employs symbolism and all sorts of stagecraft to let the audience "see" the action without literally presenting it. The action is all played on Courtney O'Neill's symbolic set—a series of parabolic arches suggestive of the belly of a whale. More than that, though, it's a framework for the actors to climb, swing from ropes, and hang platforms. With the circus choreography of Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi of The Actor's Gymnasium, the actors move up into the sky (scaling the sailing ship's masts), float on the water, paddle boats, and submerge under the water's surface. There's a brilliant fluidity to the staging that vividly symbolizes the man vs. nature themes of Melville's story.

Catlin deliberately draws on classical theater traditions to create a parallel with the great epic tales. He includes a Greek chorus of sorts with the Three Fates of Greek mythology. The tragic figure of Captain Ahab, relentlessly pursuing the white whale that severed his leg on an earlier voyage, is a flawed hero in the tradition of Shakespeare's Lear or Othello. But for all the inventive theatricality of this staging, the human element is not lost. As in the novel, the story is narrated by Ishmael, the man who seeks to adventure and becomes the only survivor of Ahab's futile quest. Jamie Abelson gives us Ishmael's restlessness, vulnerability and anxiety over the new and perilous situations in which he finds himself—whether they be sharing a bed with the presumed cannibal Queequeg (played colorfully and very humanely by Anthony Fleming III) or following the obsessed Ahab in stormy seas or into battle with the whale. (Walter Owen Briggs plays Ishmael at matinees.)

Nathan Hosner is the production's nuanced Ahab, not completely divorced from reality, but teetering between sanity and insanity—occasionally heeding the more realistic advice of his steadfast first mate Starbuck (the excellent Kareem Bandealy), but ultimately leading his crew to disaster in his determination to find and kill Moby Dick. The second mate Stubb is played with a genial sense of resignation by Raymond Fox. Rounding out the ten-person cast are Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Mattie Hawkinson as the Fates; and Micah Figueroa and Javen Ulambayar as crewmen Cabaco and Mungun. These five perform the bulk of the acrobatics, but the entire cast is called upon to move gymnastically. With a modest amount of double-casting, the ten actors ably create the world of Melville's 19th century tale.

Catlin's version of this epic clocks in at about 2:45, a reasonable length that does justice to Melville's massive novel while keeping it manageable for a single evening of theatergoing. The production, which Lookingglass premiered in 2015 and took on a national tour before this summer-long return engagement, has meaning, movement and emotion. It's entertaining, to be sure, but with enough philosophical heft to be a worthwhile use of nearly three hours.

Moby Dick will play Lookingglass Theatre, in the historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, through September 3, 2017. For tickets and further information, visit

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