A production at the Rep takes ‘Moby Dick’ from the high seas to the circus
Herman Mellville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick” is one of the most-adapted books in American literature.
It has spawned comic books, TV movies, films and theatrical takes on the story of Captain Ahab, a ship’s captain who is obsessed with killing the white whale that tore off his leg during a previous voyage. The charismatic leader pursues vengeance even while endangering his crew.
The version of the tale that begins performances at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on Wednesday borrows many of its moves from an unexpected source: the circus.
As they mimic the actions of sailors on the high seas, actors climb ropes and poles rising high above the stage. One actor taps into her skills as a contortionist.
“We want to do it in a visceral, kinesthetic, cinematic way. We want you to feel that you are enveloped in it, that you are immersed in it, like when you read a book and you get lost in it,” said David Catlin, who adapted the book and directs the production. It runs at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts at Webster University through Feb. 25.
The lively production originated in 2015 at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, which has a long-running artistic relationship with the Actors Gymnasium, a training center for circus arts with a specialty in theatrical crossovers. “Moby Dick” played to rave reviews in Chicago and several cities that later hosted special engagements. Much of the present cast performed in the show’s earlier incarnations.
“We have a lot of aerial routines,” explained Walter Owen Briggs, who portrays the novice whaler Ishmael, the narrator. “It just pushes everybody to go further, to have trust in each other and be able to accomplish things that are scary and dangerous. There’s an element of danger in the show that I think is not to be forgotten about.”
The challenge for the show’s creators is to incorporate some eye-popping, aerial theatrics without distracting from the story. The point is not to pull off impressive tricks and then hold for applause.
“We are not there to be like, ‘We’re going to amaze them with our skills.’ Our goal is to make sure the story remains strong and keeps going,” said acrobatic choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, who founded the Actors Gymnasium after growing up as a circus performer. She and her family specialized in the teeterboard, a plank that rests on a fulcrum and acts like a seesaw. One of her signature moves was a backflip onto a chair set atop a 12-foot pole.
The aerial work in this production is meant to reflect the dangerous reality of life on a 19th century whaling vessel.
The circus elements “inform a play that’s about characters doing dangerous things — going on long voyages out on the ocean, climbing up in the rigging and falling from great heights. We’re not shooting anybody out of a cannon,” Hernandez-DiStasi said.
The production at the Rep is the first for this “Moby Dick” since 2017. The coronavirus pandemic has since made some of its themes more relatable, Catlin said.
“Ishmael feels unconnected to the world. He feels rudderless,” the director said. “I think that to some extent, we’ve all probably felt some degree of that, or maybe somebody we love has. The ideas of finding connection with someone, finding purpose in one's life — I think they resonate even more deeply.”
The story of Captain Ahab leading his men to calamity in pursuit of the white whale has become an enduring metaphor for an unhealthy obsession that ultimately consumes a person.
The theme is familiar to many audience members, Briggs said.
“He draws us into this incredible chase for an unattainable creature. We’ve all kind of been there, in any field,” he said. “There’s these moments where we feel like we can pull back and we could stop this relentless chase, and humanity might sink in and bring us back to reality. And it just doesn’t happen. We keep going.”