Theater Review: 'Moby Dick'

Ben Miles
Christopher Donahue, Kelley Abell, Kasey Foster, Cordelia Dewdney, Anthony Fleming III and Jamie Abelson in Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Moby Dick adapted by David Catlin.

Adapting a book into a theatrical event is not an uncommon artistic feat. It’s been done with literary landmarks ranging Sent from my iPhone Orwell’s “1984” to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” No tome, however, presents a greater staging challenge than Herman Melville’s whale of a tale, “Moby Dick.”
Nevertheless, Chicago’s renowned and unique performance ensemble known as The Lookinglass Theatre Company, in collaboration with the Alliance Theatre and the Arena Stage, has mounted its 2015 adaption of Melville’s monstrous novel on the Segerstrom Stage of Orange County’s theatrical crown jewel, South Coast Repertory (SCR) – and what a viscerally aesthetic achievement it is.
Cogently adapted and tautly directed by Lookingglass’s founding ensemble member, David Catlin, this “Moby Dick” is inventive, imaginative and harrowing. Whereas Herman Melville’s 1851 novel is often criticized as a book bloated with too many factoids and superfluous seafaring details, Catlin’s adaptation cuts away the book’s blubber and sinks straight into the depths of its characters’ objectives and psychological conflicts.
Played out within a magnificent scenic design by Courtney O’Neill, which surrounds the stage area in what appears to be the inner hull of a whaling vessel or the inside of a great whale, the eerie design carries with it the uneasy feel of a dastardly dreamscape. Add to that William C. Kirkham’s evocative lighting design, Rick Sims’s invaluable sound scheme and composition, as well as Sully Ratke’s period costuming, and we in the audience easily suspend our disbelief and join this quest for the mammoth sea mammal.
Moreover, the company’s agile actors, under the supervision of aerial choreographer Sylvia Hernande-DiStasi, perform acrobatic feats that rival those of the world famous cirque du soleil, climbing ropes, ascending towering ship masts and taking death defying dives and falls. These contextually appropriate stunts are nothing short of breathtaking.
But it is the actors that put breath and soul into these 19th century seafarers. As the story’s adventurous narrator Ishmael, Jamie Abelson hits the humorous notes of this character but also exhibits the wanderlust that motivates his signing on to the crew of a whaling ship. As Queequeg, described as a “savage from the other side of the world,” Anthony Fleming III is a source of comedic relief and a most charismatic and spirited performer.
Walter Owen Briggs plays Starbuck, the voice of reason and balance in this story of mania and obsession. We in the audience relate to him as the character best suited to bring proportionality to this bizarre quest for revenge.
And then there’s Captain Ahab, the whaling skipper whose sole goal at this point in his dreadful existence is to seek retribution from the great whale that gnawed-off his left leg. Christopher Donahue embodies this whaler with an intensity that rivals the madness of the most lunatic of any literary character ever created.
Moreover, the grieving widows and other women folk, the sea itself and the whale are all beautifully and hauntingly displayed through the efforts of three well synchronized actresses, Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney and Kasey Foster. Along with contributions from Micah Figueroa as Cabaco, et al; Raymond Fox as Stubb, et al; and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun, this Lookingglass ensemble production of “Moby Dick” is as complete and accomplished as could be imagined.
“Moby Dick’s ” evening Performances (at a 2 hour and 20 minute running time) are Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, at 7:30 p.m., And Thursdays-Saturdays, at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays-Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. An ASL-interpreted performance is on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m. The show closes on Feb. 19. Call (714) 708-5555 for reservations. For online ticketing visit
SCR is located in Costa Mesa at 655 Town Center Drive



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