Monday, January 29, 2024

Moby Dick for Puppets

Photo by Christophe Raynaud deLage.

In a six-day run at Boston’s Paramount Theater under the auspices of Arts Emerson, the Norwegian company Plexus Polaire staged Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in eighty-five brisk minutes with a cast of seven actor-puppeteers and three musicians. But though some of the effects were nifty and imaginative and the production held one’s attention, I’m not entirely sure what I saw. The show, directed by Yngvild Aspeli, is narrated, like the novel, by Ishmael, the only member of the crew who survives Captain Ahab’s single-minded pursuit of the immense sea beast that chewed off his leg in a previous whaling expedition, and it takes care to introduce us to all the members of the crew of the Pequod. But aside from Ishmael only a couple, the harpooner Queequeg (who becomes Ishmael’s closet friend) and the cabin boy Pip, are allowed to make much of an impression, and when the puppets are in close proximity on the shadowy stage it’s difficult to tell them apart. Aspeli – or the company in collaboration (the program doesn’t offer a writing credit) – hasn’t necessarily chosen the excerpts from the book to clarify the plot, so even if you know it pretty well you might have trouble following the story line.

What also isn’t clear is specifically how this version wants to read the novel. A note in the program alludes to “the enigmatic relationship between Captain Ahab and Fedallah, one of the five clandestine passengers secretly invited aboard by Ahab . . . There is a rumor between the sailors on board that he may be the Devil and that Ahab has sold his soul to him . . . Although Ahab is the free master and Fedallah only his slave, it seems that Ahab sees his own shadow in Fedallah who sees his substances abandoned in the captain.” This is interesting, but I certainly couldn’t have worked it out from what I saw. The ghostly presences on the ship might just as well be the spirits of other sailors lost on the ocean; if Ahab interacted with them during the show, I missed it. But then, the stage action often isn’t coherent.

Among the show’s high points is the way it uses a miniature of the ship to alter perspective – most potently, of course, when Moby Dick makes his much-anticipated appearance at the climax. The ocean creatures floating across the stage are both charming and visually appealing, and one, a large, transparent milky-white fish with illuminated contours, is particularly arresting and may be intended to suggest the way Ahab’s obsession and the image he has placed in the minds of his crew have transformed Moby Dick into a supernatural figure. There’s a fine sequence where Pip, having fallen overboard, calls for the help of his shipmates: the puppet of the cabin boy struggles against white cloth clinging to the two-tiered structure that provides the abstract set designed by Elisabeth Holager Lund. The interplay of lighting (by Marine David) and video (David Lejard-Ruffet) creates some striking images. And the folk music provided by a trio, Emil Storkløkken Åse, Georgia Wartel Collins and Lou Renaud-Bailly, is a welcome element. In one memorable moment Pip leads the crew in a plaintive melody about hunting the whale.

Overall, though, this Moby Dick lacks grandeur and elegance, and the vocal presentation of the text is short on poetry. The images repeat themselves and the staging sometimes feels random. You might walk away from the performance with admiration for the hard work of the company more than the sense of having been transported into Melville’s dark, ineffable world, where human folly – ambition, obsession and hubris – morph into legend.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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