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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Moby Dick a new adaptation from David Catlin

Or: “Madness Maddened”


Madness. Madness to speak of it, to even think of it. To bring Moby Dick, that leviathan of literature, to the stage. To ask a crew of green artists to learn the ropes and brace the lines of tricks that would baffle circus artists and english professors. To ask an audience to spend three hours at sea on a ship of doom, plunging through the perilous straights of prophesy, sedition, and how to scientifically classify a whale. Madness! Who would dare attempt such a feat? Enter David Catlin, writer, director, and dreamer of the rich and ponderous voyage, now churning in belly the Barber theater.

It is Catlin who dares to raise the voice of Ishmael (Samuel Zeisel) the outcast who, seeking to leave the harsh and muddy world of men won winning the friendship of the harpooner prince Queequeg (Brandon Powers) and set sail with a ship of Jonas to plunder the vast and treacherous sea. It is Catlin who dears revive the salt and iron magic of Captain Ahab (Daniel Chenard), the one-legged sailor king who’s soul aim in life was to destroy that monstrous eater of men, that great marbled question mark, the white whale: Moby Dick. Set against the strange and terrible powers of the fates (Kaithlyn Andrews, Anna Baryshikov, Emma Cadd, Daphne Kim, Brooke Weisman and Ella Pennington) Ishmael and a whole crew of broken and heart broken men plunge on, following the white whale and its hunter toward wrath, ruin, and the vasty deep.


Relying upon the spliced history of theatrical and nautical worlds Catlin, his designers (Shawn Ketchum Johnson on set, Carolyn Sullivan and Lindsay Lyddan), and circus wizard Sylvia Hernades-Distasi conjure up a slick and dangerous world, where man and woman's struggle against the laws of G-d and gravity are played out behind us, above us and below. Sometimes these fantasias of movement and Melville worship slosh into excess, and smack of showoffiness or simple overextension. But when turned to illuminate those knotty, sea stained passages that should be impossible to stage, their keel runs true. To watch the wholesale slaughter and butchery of a pod of whales, or scope Queequeg’s strange eventful history scroll out, or to see a man drowning, catching and being caught by the exquisite abyss, in a liquid dance as the life ebbs out of him; such sights leave one adrift on a sea of wonder .


Part of the spell is due to Melville’s language. Though a thick slough on the printed page, when purified by Catlin’s culling pen and alchemical dashes of humor, the weathered and fearsome phrases reach an almost Shakespearean shine. I ask you, where will you find more poetry than in, “There Ahab and Agony lay together in one hammock”? Though the conventional wisdom would be to relay the roles with sturm and drang, with much wailing on whaling and gnashing of teeth, the cast prefers to pilot us on an even swell, not becalmed, but not always raging either. Zeisel’s unobtrusive but charged storytelling and Chenard’s white hot rages bind us to the heart of the story but are but a few of the verbal ropes that lead us on. Pernel Van Myers gives a masterful turn as Captain Gardner, who’s grief blows at all our hearts, Patrick Beutow’s frilless portrayal as Stubbs the deadpanned comedian, draw us a much needed catch of laughter without need for noisome nudge or wink and Fergus Inder’s Perth the blacksmith proves a sober and full throated partner for Ishmael, Ahab and the good first mate Starbuck (Peter Tolly) to struggle against. As for the fates, their singsong taunting as well as their wordless portrayals as wives and whales alike give a powerful, though silent feminine comparison to a raw masculine sea saga.


It was madness to attempt this show, and it is sublime madness to try and take it in. Understandably it is in the scenes of Ahab’s lunacy (and his even more tragic loose lucidity) and is struggle the utterly uncaring logic of the sea that the show shines the strongest. In watching the captain hitch up his crew, even the mild Ishmael, to his death scented quest, twining their souls together with sacraments of brine and blood, we are selves feel witched, drawn into impossible world. A world where the densest of words can take wing in our imaginations, where brittle bodies can attempt death defying feats, where theaters transform to the decks of swaying ships. We see the impossible made possible and our moved in our own sweet madness to cry out in defiance of the Peequad’s chant, “Life! Life to Moby Dick!”

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