When I heard SAIAH was going to be tackling a stage adaptation of Moby Dick, I felt much like Ishmael as he was about to embark on his first whaling adventure. They brought us Rua/Wulf, an interactive wandering through the realms of Red Riding Hood, so I knew that ambition and not so average sit-down-and-watch experiences were to be experienced. SAIAH, under the direction of Marium Khalid, has taken Kennesaw State University professor John Gentile’s stage adaption of Herman Melville’s epic novel and created a journey for audiences to share in a haunting location and with a lasting image.
The original thought one might get when first hearing that Moby Dick is taking the stage is skepticism. Obviously a whale can not be present on the stage, and if you have someone playing the role of the whale in an awkward whale costume then it becomes a children’s show and something that audiences will find hokey. But with John Gentile’s rendition of the whale as whiteness, an idea or an essence rather than a being, SAIAH created a wafting woman that held grace and majesty, along with feared power. This woman (Briana Brock) in cascading white almost floated around the old warehouse where the show was staged and held onto all of the things – and even made them that much more powerful from an audiences perspective – that Captain Ahab felt. She encompassed beauty, fear, oceanic mysticism, and strength. It was creepy and unnerving, yet like the men on the boat, you couldn’t stop watching and wondering when she would appear next.
The cast involved did not only tackle major feats of completely bypassing the fourth wall and including the audience in their world, but also were insanely athletic. They jumped, climbed, pushed and pulled huge scenery without safety equipment or fumbles. The crew, including the ever warning Starbuck (Andrew Puckett), and the admired friend Queequeg (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), as well as others played by John Tucker, Joseph Pendergrast, Markell Williams, Nathan McCurry, Johnny Boddie, and Elijah Marcano, were devoted to their roles and held the over masculinized, strong demeanor of seamen, but also shared tender moments of fear and concern maintaining the familial and fraternal atmosphere while out at sea. Grant McCloud, who plays Ishmael, was the epitome of perfect casting. He had the naivety and blind wonderment of a man looking for more. His emotions transitioned as the reality of his voyage became more and more clear, and the regret of not heeding the many warnings showed wear upon his eagerness to do something big. The ill-fated Captain Ahab, played by Phillip Justman, defied what my imagination held of this man, but in the best way. I pictured the obsessive captain as a large burley man who was a physical force to be reckoned with. But SAIAH turned this idea around by making Ahab, not entirely physically the meaning of power, but mentally. His devotion to his revenge, mixed with his knowledge and unwavering gut while facing death made him the man that made all others cower.
The setting itself is what made this show a complete experience as well as posed a few unwanted knots in these fisherman’s ropes. The old abandoned warehouse where it was set creaked like a ship and offered the aged thick ropes and pulleys to accommodate actors in realistic seafaring motions. It set the mood for the entire production from the point of entrance to the finale. Audiences weaved through the building at first, going from scene to scene as Ishmael readied himself for his decision to go onboard. Then once seated, the warehouse, before the audiences eyes, turned into a ship. The exposed beams and dim dark lighting made it seem like all involved were truly about to encounter something grand. It was an amazing experience, but it did not come without pitfalls. Going from destination to destination was a little distracting and seemed to need a bit clearer guidance from the ushers involved for where attendees were meant to be. The noises, though adding to the environment, did take away from hearing all that actors were saying. The echo of a warehouse doesn’t match the acoustics of a intentional theater space. It didn’t quite lessen the understanding of the production, but it did pull the audience out of their focus.
Moby Dick is by far the most ambitious work that I have seen in a long time. SAIAH is front and center when it comes to being innovative and changing the way we view theater. They see beyond the ordinary and bypass traditional stage settings and limitations. Moby Dick is a fine example of their efforts to push boundaries and maintain theater as an art form not just entertainment. The production is playing till May 12, for tickets and show times, visit SAIAH.org.