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Review: Saiah’s inventive, ambitious “Moby-Dick” is season’s first “don’t miss” show

Saiah has again transformed the Goat Farm into a magical tapestry in “Moby-Dick.” (Photo by by Shannon Goodman)
Saiah Moby Dick
Saiah’s production of “Moby-Dick” captures the singular vision of Herman Melville’s novel. (Photo by Shannon Goodman)

There are times when a theater critic’s duty doesn’t seem to require much beyond simply saying, “Go see this show.” That’s about all that needs to be said about a production that’s inarguably special, worthwhile and remarkable. But a review has to be longer than that, so I suppose I’ll elaborate.

The young Atlanta theater company Saiah has taken on the project of creating a theatrical version of the great American novel “Moby-Dick,” running at the Lifecycle Building Center in Atlanta’s West End through May 12. In the first third of the production, the audience follows the action through various spaces in and around the warehouse as Ishmael prepares for his famous journey. Then it settles into seats in an area demarcated as the deck of the whaling ship Pequod for the bulk of the performance.

Saiah has proven itself to be enormously resourceful and inventive since it emerged on the Atlanta scene less than two years ago. Its first show, “The City of Lions and Gods,” was this publication’s top pick for 2011 in our annual roundup of local theatrical productions, and its “Rua/Wulf” won a similar honor, Reader’s Pick for best show of the year from Creative Loafing in 2012. The new “Moby-Dick” is its most ambitious undertaking yet, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The venue is a new one for Saiah, whose previous productions have taken place at the Goat Farm Arts Center, where Saiah is a resident theater company. “Moby-Dick” is being presented as part of the Goat Farm’s Outlands Program.

I imagine that lots of people remember “Moby-Dick” as that leaden, doorstop-sized, required-reading tome full of lengthy digressions about every last technical aspect of whale hunting. But even a cursory look as an adult will serve to show the intimacy and authority of the novel’s first-person voice, the fleetness of the narrative, and the high-definition accuracy and singularity of Herman Melville’s vision. These are, in fact, the qualities that are brought to the stage here.

We tend to think of sailing and whaling as almost quaint, but the setting in an industrial warehouse puts the emphasis, correctly, on whaling as industry. Whaling was among the first global industries, one that utilized every available technological innovation to harness natural resources for enormous profit, often at great human cost. (This past isn’t even past, as they say.) There’s a haunted quality to scriptwriter John Gentile’s adaptation — he essentially understands this as a tale of terror, a nightmare expedition into the heart of darkness — as when dead sailors recite the inscriptions on the marble slabs of their memorial plaques seen in a church. Gentile’s innovation of having a female character play not the whale, but the whiteness of the whale as a haunting, inscrutable female presence, is spot-on.

Captain Ahab has to be among the most complicated theatrical roles one could ever want to play, and Phillip Justman brings out a fantastic sense of the lead character’s inscrutability and tortured obsession. There’s a mythic grandeur to the part — how could there not be? — but also a more complicated and intriguing note of understanding that the real hunt is an interior one. It’s a madness on cosmic themes.

The acoustics in the large building can be a problem. Performers have to speak loudly throughout in order to be heard, and words, and even whole lines, can get lost. It’s easy enough to conceptualize “Moby-Dick” as a sort of grand opera, full of large overarching movement, so that understanding each and every last word is not entirely necessary. But still, in the novel, there’s also a crucial sense of intimacy to Ishmael’s voice, which is difficult to suggest in this environment. The journey from the jaunty “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world” to “I alone have lived to tell the tale” is a long one, and it should have major variations in pitch, closeness and urgency, but Grant McCloud as Ishmael is often stuck with trying to evoke all this at the level of “Can you hear me now?”

Nevertheless, this production is something to get excited about. The inventiveness, the airtight, almost sculptural sense of theatrical space and narrative time, and the bold willingness to take on huge themes set it apart. It put me in mind of some of the world-class troupes I’ve been lucky enough to see from time to time in my life. The warehouse has a day job as a recycling center for disused building materials, and its moonlighting job, though it seems worlds apart, is actually not entirely unrelated: this is great, imaginative use of local resources in the most profound sense.

There. I’ve written almost 800 words when, honestly, I think four would have sufficed. Go see this show.

 The Lifecycle Building Center is at 1116 Murphy Avenue, Atlanta.

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