Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Moby Dick
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie

The Cast
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR
Moby Dick has traditionally been read in high school English classes, and there are good educational reasons why. It is definitely an "adult" work of literature, it portrays a U.S. culture that is historically important but also no longer part of the lives of the readers, and it combines a story full of high drama with thrilling action sequences. It also features literary devices, such as thematic metaphors, that readers may not have encountered previously.

By any definition, Herman Melville's novel is one of the great pieces of American fiction. And it's been adapted into multiple films, a television mini-series, and an opera. So, why not the stage as well?

Enter David Catlin, co-founder of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company and a graduate of Northwestern University. That's important, because Northwestern has a rich tradition of adapting literature for performance, including pioneering directing and performing techniques for this kind of work (Southern Californians may find it interesting that Charlton Heston's sister, Lilla Heston, was a longtime Northwestern professor who did some of this work).

Mr. Catlin's approach to adapting and staging Moby Dick, at South Coast Repertory through February 19, reflects the Northwestern tradition and then some. Performers play multiple roles; costumes (by Kathy Logelin), lighting (by William C. Kirkham), and scenic design (by Courtney O'Neill) all suggest, rather than depict; and cast movement suggests what is being portrayed.

To these hallmarks, Mr. Catlin has added a Greek chorus of women (Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster) who are called "Fates," something of a defining metaphor in and of itself. They play whales, sea sirens, and the occasional land creature. Their voices are amplified to create other-worldly qualities (by Rick Sims, who is also credited with composition of what is sometimes sound and pitch rather than music per se).

Because the ship's rigging is important to the story (and to the staging—the rigging handlers came on stage for a bow at the curtain call), Mr. Catlin has imagined the ship's crew as acrobats, climbing the rigging and hanging from it in artistic ways (aerial/acrobatic choreography is credited to Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi).

All of this leaves the stage-bound characters distinctly muted. Most muted among the principals (which also include Jamie Abelson as Ishmael, Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun) is Christopher Donahue's Ahab. In part, this dampening of Ahab's role comes from Mr. Catlin's adaptation, which downplays the melodramatics that might normally be associated with setting up Ahab's first appearance, well into act one. But it's also a performance choice. Ahab is obsessed with the whale, yes, but he's also a good man and a respected leader. He's not foaming at the mouth, even at the height of his obsession.

There's plenty to look at, hear, and absorb, nevertheless. All of the highlights of the novel are present, including its most famous lines, and the run time is a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission. Even so, there's enough meat that the adaptation doesn't play like a Cliffs Notes version of the tale.

I'm guessing that Lilla Heston would have been proud of this production.

Through February 19, 2017, at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA. Performances daily except Mondays, with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets and information can be found or by calling 714-708-5555.

The production also features Walter Owen Briggs, Micah Figueroa, and Raymond Fox, with understudies Adeoye and Chris Mathews.

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