Despite its thrilling adventure scenes and unforgettable characters, Moby-Dick can resist adaptation, its sprawling, allegorical narrative prone to long digressions on the procedures of 19th century whaling. The bold, environmental theater of young Atlanta company Saïah delivers a remarkable theatrical spectacle that evokes the texture of Melville's book, even though the staging introduces new challenges.
While Saïah's 2012 riff on Little Red Riding Hood, Rua/Wulf, unfolded over seemingly every nook and cranny of The Goat Farm Art Center, Moby-Dick takes place in a 60,000 square foot, approximately 100-year-old warehouse adjacent to the Life Cycle Building Center in Southwest Atlanta. For the first half of the production, guides with lanterns lead the audience to different stations where the drama unfolds. The building's former loading dock, for instance, doubles as a Nantucket wharf, and as actors in sailor garb bustle past, you can easily envision the Pequod tied to the dock. The abandoned-cathedral spaciousness of the warehouse and the rough, authentic nature of the props contribute enormously to the dreamlike feeling that the show has transported the audience to both a utilitarian, 19th-century setting and a timeless text.
Saïah's Moby-Dick even finds a way to cast the title character, with Briana Brock identified as "The Whiteness of the Whale." In white corset, petticoat and chalky makeup, Brock approaches the audience from a distance, raising a portion of her dress so it resembles a whale's tail. Several times during the show she recites passages from Melville about the terrifying qualities of the color white and Moby-Dick's inherent evil.
Grant McCloud, as rookie whaler Ishmael, guides the audience through different places in the warehouse, including Father Mapple's chapel and the bedroom in which he meets tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Marcus-Hopkins Turner). When the Pequod casts off, the audience sits in folding chairs near the center of the warehouse, with networks of ropes conveying the rigging of the ship.
Unfortunately, several of the main scenes involving Ahab (Phillip Justman) take place behind the seats, at a distance from the spectators. Between the awkwardness of the placement, Ahab's booming, quasi-Biblical dialogue and the iffy acoustics of the warehouse, some of the most important scenes of the action can be difficult to see and the words hard to discern. Perhaps director Marium Khalid wanted to put some distance between the audience and Ahab to convey the separation of the obsessed captain and his hapless crew.
Some of the performances seem overly influenced by "Talk Like a Pirate Day," but despite the production's stumbling blocks, Moby-Dick offers a unique and exciting evening with highlights including the sailor's rendition of "Spanish Ladies" (Robert Shaw's song from Jaws) and the whaling scenes. For these, the cast members arrange themselves on a huge rolling staircase, as if they're on a longboat that shakes violently when attacked by the white whale.
Saïah's staging of Moby-Dick does justice to the grandeur and complexity of Melville's novel, which seems to compress the enormity of the human condition into a whaling expedition. Even if the one-of-a-kind production makes some missteps along the way, you can't fault Saïah for lack of imagination or intensity. You can imagine the company contending with Melville's text using the same focus and energy that Ahab brings to his fight with the whale: "To the last I grapple with thee!"
Moby Dick. Through May 12. Saïah, The Life Cycle Building Center 1116 Murphy Ave. $25-$30; performances limited to 60 people. www.saiah.org.
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