Spine: ‘Moby Dick’ Inside Jonah’s Whale at Arena Stage

“Jonah,” I said to myself as soon as I laid eyes upon the set of Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Moby Dick.

Christopher Donahue and Walter Owen Briggs. Photo by Greg Mooney.
Christopher Donahue and Walter Owen Briggs. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Large, curved rib-bones thrusting upward, form a cradle: “It’s happening inside the whale.”

Inside Moby Dick indeed! As adapted and directed by David Catlin, with a design team of Courtney O’Neill (sets), Sully Ratke (costumes), William C. Kirkman (lights), Rick Sims (sound and music), Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi (aerial/acrobatic choreography), and Isaac Schoepp (rigging), Herman Melville’s American classic has come to life in more ways than one on Arena’s Keeger stage.

First, there is the sea, those miraculous swells whose undulating surfaces lure sailors and fishermen to their deaths. Here, the three fates (played by Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster) do not so much tempt men to their deaths as embrace them.

Then, there is the whale, but not any whale, but the Great White Whale himself, a Sperm whale with jaws that crush, by legend a killer whale indeed. Here–well, let it be said that when the Great White Whale enters the Kreeger you’ll know it.

Civilization versus the brute force of nature, and the story begins with that famous line: “Call me Ishmael.”

A rather bookish young man (played by Jamie Abelson) stands on a street and recounts his adventure. It began one day, when he was feeling out of sorts. In fact, he was so out of sorts that he might have killed someone.

The cast of 'Moby Dick' Photo by Greg Mooney.
The cast of ‘Moby Dick’ Photo by Greg Mooney.

You see, “civilization” was getting under his skin and he couldn’t stand the jostling and jabbing. He was ready to explode. (Anyone who lives in Washington, D.C., can relate to that feeling, needing to escape the bustle of relentless human ambition.)

Well, that’s just what Ishmael does. He decides to escape civilization; he goes to sea.

So he journeys to New Bedford to find a ship, but instead he finds Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), a resident of a fictional South Pacific island named Kokovoko. The two cross the racial divide and strike up a friendship.

When they board the whaler, the Pequad, the psychological journey at the heart of Moby Dick begins.

When they finally meet the volatile Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) then the American journey at the soul of Moby Dick begins.

Both journeys are nothing short of a trip into the heart of darkness, a singular obsession to root evil out of the human soul. The ship and its Captain, like the nation and its leader, have but a single purpose: to find and kill Moby Dick.

The rest of the crew, led by the first mate, Starbuck (Walter Owen Briggs), does its best to divert Ahab’s obsession onto more practical matters, such as the gaining of whale oil, the favorite fuel of New Englanders and their lanterns. But all their efforts fail.

Obsession, it seems, is not so easily diverted: evil is not so much the force of violence that the white whale represents, animalistic as any pack of wolves, but rather evil is humankind’s determination to put an end to evil; for in pursuing that goal, Ahab becomes a force far more destructive than the whale will ever be.

Yes, strange paradoxes are the stuff of great fiction, and they are just the stuff on which this Moby Dick depends. You’ll never be not surprised by the goings and comings of this theatrical venture.

With actors somersaulting through the air or holding firm against the sea’s onslaught or rowing their small craft out over the audience’s heads, one is reminded of old saying: “There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.”

The problem is: Man is that wounded Animal.

And the danger he poses is to himself, most of all.


Running Time: Two hours and 20-minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Moby Dick plays through December 24, 2016 , at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.

Moby Dick reviewed by Jane Franklin on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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