Review: Alliance’s “Moby Dick” relies on showy gimmicks at the expense of a great story

Moby Dick comes to Atlanta from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Moby Dick comes to Atlanta from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

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There’s a lot to like about the production of Moby Dick running at the Alliance Theatre through October 30, but, overall, it seems like a show still in search of its sea legs. That’s somewhat surprising considering the production arrives in Atlanta with a fantastic pedigree.

The Lookingglass Theatre Company premiered the show in the summer of 2015 in Chicago to rave reviews. Atlanta audiences may remember the company, which combines circus arts with traditional theater, for its well-received version of Alice in Wonderland that it brought to the Alliance in 2010.

In transferring the production of Moby Dick from Chicago to Atlanta, however, the show isn’t just making a trip across the country; the show moves from Lookingglass’ intimate black box space to the expansive traditional proscenium stage at one of Atlanta’s largest theatrical venues. It proves to be a bumpy voyage.

To say that the story of Moby Dick is a challenge to bring to the stage is an understatement. Moby Dick is a long story, most of it takes place on a ship at sea. and its primary antagonist is, well, a whale. These challenges are inventively solved by the company, which uses a bare bones set (cool receding arches over the stage literally resemble the rib bones of a whale); ropes and rigging above an otherwise barren stage suggest the deck of a ship. Our narrator — call him Ishmael — as played by Jamie Abelson conveys a sense of the 19th century, but more importantly the actor captures that character’s modern, pre-middle age ennui and world weariness. It all contrasts in an exciting way onstage with the obsessiveness and single-mindedness of Ahab, compellingly played by Christopher Donahue.

There are elements of aerial work in the show, but they never seem totally essential to the story and in the era of Cirque du Soleil, they’re not mind-blowingly impressive either. I was startled and discomforted at one point when billowing parachute-style fabric was pulled over the audience by actors running down the aisles. I vividly remember the feeling of suddenly having a sheet pulled over my head, but I can’t even recall what narrative event the effect was meant to evoke. It drew me out of the story rather than pulling me in, a general problem with the special effects and stunts.

Three women act as a chorus, taking on bit roles as an innkeeper’s wife or members of a seaside parish and such before the sea voyage, punctuating Ishmael’s narration throughout with sound effects or repetition and then finally becoming the great white whale. One of the most memorable elements in the novel Moby Dick is the intensity and intimacy of the narrative voice, that hypnotically unspooling ribbon of speech from a single and singular viewer. The opening moments of narration in the show I found strangely garbled and unfocused as Ishmael is echoed by a chorus. I suspect many of these elements — the aerial work, the echoing chorus and so on — simply worked better in a smaller theater.

In some ways, bringing a whale onstage is among the least challenging aspects of creating theater out of Moby Dick. The lighting effects and trio of women here ineluctably have an element of silliness, but overall they’re quite spooky and effective. (Atlanta-based playwright John Gentile’s version solves this problem in a different way, by having a female actress play the whiteness of the whale, a solution that better evokes some of the novel’s spooky hallucinatory qualities.)

But in the end, we feel that all we’ve seen here is a dramatic representation of the narrative events of Moby Dick with some aerial work tacked on. Somehow one longs for a deeper dive than that because Moby Dick is a novel that’s about so much more than just the things that happen.

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