It’s altogether fitting that Lookingglass Theatre’s production of MOBY DICK takes place in Water Tower Water Works. Before or after the show, you can use the entrance that allows you to look down on Chicago’s historic pump. As the pump was devised to channel vast Lake Michigan waters into pipes for city dwellers, this adaptation is devised to channel Herman Melville’s vast seafaring novel to theatregoers.
In 2015, Lookingglass collaborated with Actors Gymnasium to create a visually stirring show. Adapted and directed by David Catlin, MOBY DICK went on to win multiple Jeff Awards, tour the country and now returns to its Water Tower home through Labor Day weekend. Whether you’ve never read the exhaustive 19th century novel or consider yourself a fan, you are likely to leave Lookingglass with new appreciation.
Lookingglass Theatre’s seaworthy jungle gym
The production makes visual and emotional sense of Herman Melville’s classic. Courtney O’Neill’s set design opens up the stage area from back walls to ceiling pipes. Commanding the dark space are huge curved tubular frames that become whatever is needed: the tall masts of the Pequod, the “ribs and terrors” of whale innards, the depths of the ocean. The cast of aerial acrobat-actors uses the structure like a seaworthy jungle gym.
Stylized interpretation and raw drama
Catlin’s adaptation distills the massive narrative by interweaving stylized interpretation with raw drama. In an overcrowded inn, Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) must share a bed with Queequeg, a tattooed harpooner from the South Seas. Played with gusto by Anthony Fleming III, Queequeg sleeps soundly as his pasty-white bedfellow has a terrifying nightmare about the dark-skinned stranger. The scene combines outrageous humor with movement worthy of a ballet. By morning, Ishmael realizes that Queequeq presents no danger and the two men sign three-year contracts to work aboard the Pequod.
Equally gripping is the scene in which Captain Ahab (Nathan Hosner), having lost a leg to the “inscrutable malice” of Moby Dick, declares revenge on the white whale. His chief mate Starbuck (yes, the source of the coffee chain’s name) reminds the captain that vengeance belongs to God. Sensitively portrayed by Kareem Bandealy, Starbuck argues that destroying a “dumb brute” that severed Ahab’s leg only from “blindest instinct” makes little sense compared to finding lucrative whale oil. As Ahab’s irrationality builds, Starbuck’s financial motivation seems increasingly humane.
MOBY DICK explores whaling’s allure and perils
What drives men to leave families for years at sea? Starbuck, for one, leaves behind a beloved wife and newborn child for potential wealth. For others like Ishmael and Queequeq, it’s uncharted adventure. A man could redefine himself at sea, perhaps escaping personal responsibilities and societal strictures. But the risks are high. This stage realization of MOBY DICK explores whaling’s perils as well as allure with kinetic energy.
Three actresses – Kelly Abell, Cordelia Dewdney and Mattie Hawkinson -- represent all that the sailors give up and all that they encounter. Serving as MOBY DICK’s spiritual guides, they might play an innkeeper or an ocean. In an especially heartbreaking moment as widows, they recite the epitaphs etched into the tombstones of their loved ones lost at sea.
The feminine trio makes sense of what the men onboard cannot. In a remarkable scene, one actress becomes a harpooned whale, hoisted upside down to be stripped of valuable body parts. As her skirt is unwound from a whalebone hoop frame, her bare carcass is exposed. The message resonates: Taming nature for our own purposes can be as mechanical as pumping water through pipes – or as invasive as sucking life from the largest mammals on earth.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Now through September 3
Wednesdays & Fridays at 7:30 PM
Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays at 2:00 & 7:30 PM
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works
821 N. Michigan Ave.
$45-80 (student rush tickets $20)
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.