Regional Reviews: St. Louis
It's a revival of the spectacular Chicago Lookingglass Theatre Company production from 2016, directed here by David Catlin, who also wrote the original stage adaptation and who brings with him members of the original cast and crew. His play has the strange power to bind us all together on a whaling ship in the mid-19th century. We go south from New Bedford, Massachusetts, across the great Atlantic, and all the way around Africa, heading east into the Java Sea. And all in search of one thing in all that water–an albino cetacean: a great white whale.
Herman Melville's classic tale of revenge burns with an all-consuming urgency, its full-throated performers swinging above, entangled in long ropes high over the deck of the Pequod, sent aloft by the acrobatic choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi. In one of the more hellish scenes, they're barbarically hunting a school of whales for lantern oil to sell at port and light the nights at sea. It's entirely visceral, and thrilling, and stunning.
The land becomes their enemy, and Christopher Donahue stomps around the deck on a large false leg as Captain Ahab (that huge prosthetic was said to be carved from the jawbone of a whale as revenge for Ahab's first encounter with the malevolent title character). Sometimes he embraces his crew like a father, and at other times he threatens them at gunpoint. The salt sea air has bleached him nearly to bone, but there's the sound of a blade in his voice as he leads his cult. He threatens and cajoles and seduces them all with bloodthirsty poetry, and toward the horrible confrontation that comes in Act Three of a two hour and forty-five minute show (with two intermissions). And I was holding my breath through most of that final hour.
In Sunday school we were taught that "Ishmael" means "bringer of war." And war becomes a hell for the young man who takes on that name, naively in search of adventure. At the outset, any adventure will do. And by luck or damnation he narrates this colossal story. "Ishmael" is played with thoughtful earnestness (and a full dose of adrenalin) by Walter Owen Briggs. Kevin Aoussou is cast as his friend and crew mate Queequeg. He's warm and wise (for a cannibal) and as alien as you can get, in a white man's world.
It's streamlined and not quite as multicultural as the book, or Melville's own experience at sea in the 1840s. But it's magical and mystical, desperate and cathartic, with a chorus of three women representing the Fates and the seas that threaten to consume them all, in their huge and billowing skirts. The insane climax puts us in the belly of the beast, though we were warned of this in advance by a preacher man on Christmas Eve. The day before we sailed.
At curtain call, the cast is outnumbered by a stage crew that hoists and counterbalances them all as aerialists from off-stage. The Actors Gymnasium (run by Ms. Hernandez-Distasi) gets credit for this. The school's work is evident a number of times, as when the three Fates strike against the ship again and again, embodying the whale. And each time the actors slide closer and closer across the un-raked stage, into its jaws. (When this trio of women first appeared, in an early scene, I thought them absurd and ridiculous. But they soon became iconic and terrible, in the best sense of the word.) Isaac Schoepp is the rigging designer, something you don't often run into in the theatre. But there's detailed information about that, and the grim history of whaling, in the show's program.
Going by that program, the show has a strong Chicago presence, with six production staffers and actors closely associated with Lookingglass Theatre (by my count), and about a dozen more with roots in Chicago. In 2018, the Rep imported Faceless from Chicago's Northlight Theatre, a much smaller production, with one St. Louis actor in a cast of five, and a St. Louis-based stage manager. Going strictly by my gut, I'd say Faceless may have had a higher proportion of St. Louis representation, measure for measure. But both theatrical companies have struggled recently (Lookingglass has suspended all new productions), and this current arrangement seems mutually beneficial.
On stage, near the end, strobe lights freeze fateful moments, and young men die for no good reason, drowning and sinking into the darkness at regular intervals. Micah Figueroa plays Cabaco, a Spaniard who panics at the first whaling encounter, and suffers a dissociative personality break. He adds an oddly heartbreaking layer to the story. Raymond Fox plays a trio of grizzled sea veterans with their own grievous stories of the monster. And Felipe Carrasco is Starbuck, the chief mate, riveting when he finally turns the tables on Ahab.
A hell of a show. Ten out of ten.
Moby Dick runs through February 25, 2024, at Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves MO. For tickets and information, please call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association