Stage Door Review 2022

Moby Dick

Saturday, December 17, 2022


written and directed by Yngvild Aspeli

 • Plexus Polaire, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto

December 13, 15 & 16, 2022;

 • NYU Skirball, New York, NY

January 12-14, 2023;

 • Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

January 18-21, 2023

Ishmael: “Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance”

As part of the Nordic Bridges festival, Harbourfront Centre and Why Not Theatre are co-presenting Moby Dick, by the acclaimed Franco-Norwegian puppet theatre Plexus Polaire in its first Ontario appearance. To condense one of the world’s greatest novels, running to about 600 pages, to a 90-minute puppet play may seem an impossible task, but Plexus Polaire has used all the elements of theatre – light, music, movement, design, projections and verbal performance plus a huge array of puppetry effects – to capture the essence of Herman Melville epic tale and convey it to the audience. Plexus Polaire, guided by Artistic Director Yngvild Aspeli, has created a multi-sensory experience that envelops the audience in Melville’s dark, symbolic world.

I have seen two previous attempts to adapt Moby Dick to the stage – Morris Panych’s Moby Dick at Stratford in 2008 and Dominque Champagne’s version for the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Gatineau in 2015. Both focussed on the action in Melville’s novel but were unable to capture the novel’s doom-laden, meditative mood. Despite its setting of whaling on the high seas, Melville’s great opus is primarily a philosophical novel concerning man’s purpose in life and whether it or the world has any meaning. The action that occurs provides Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, primarily with new events to contemplate or with confirmations of ideas he has already formulated.

Aspeli’s version succeeds because she is able to place the thoughts uttered by Ishmael or Ahab within a larger visual and aural context that forces us to see the action from both a human-scaled and a cosmic point of view. The play begins and ends with a poem spoken by Cristina Iosif who is costumed by Benjamin Moreau all in black except for a death’s head mask.

This precedes the entrance of Ishmael, played by Julian Spooner, the only character who is not played masked or by a puppet. Aspeli’s notion seems to parallel Melville’s in making Ishmael the link between our world and the increasing strange world of the novel. Spooner plays Ishmael as someone who has recovered from a shattering experience and needs to tell his story as a way of making some sense of what he has undergone.

Ishmael answers himself when he asks why men go to sea: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all”. Ishmael links the sea with the self, with life and with death.

Aspeli attentively follows suit. She has Ahab, captain of the ship that Ishmael joins, constantly surrounded by death’s head-masked figures as Iosif was at the start. Ahab has organized a whaling mission solely to wreak revenge on the great white whale Moby Dick who bit off his left leg. Ismael says that all that Ahab hates, and Ahab hates everything in the world, he has concentrated in that whale. But as Aspeli’s staging emphasizes, Ahab’s journey to kill Moby Dick is a journey into death. Ishmael himself knows this. He tells us he was so melancholy he contemplated suicide but could not go through with it. Going to sea was the best option since fate would chose whether he lived or died.

Through the play Aspeli succeeds where Panych and Champagne did not, by placing particular incidents within a cosmic context. When the puppet Ahab (voiced by Canadian Viktor Lukawski) tells how he lost his leg, Aspeli shows the event happen that indissolubly links Ahab with his nemesis. When the cabin boy Pip falls overboard, Aspeli first shows us the accident from the side and far away, and then covers the front of the stage with a sheet covered with a projection of the sea through which the head of the puppet Pip emerges. We see the small head of the innocent surrounded and overwhelmed by the immensity of the sea, which the text has linked to chaos and to immeasurable power. It is no wonder, then, that when Pip is rescued he has gone mad, a model in miniature of Ahab’s madness.

The action is presented on the stage of the Fleck Dance Theatre with a second level built downstage. Three musicians – bassist Georgia Wartel Collins and guitarist Emil Storløkken Åse on stage right and percussionist Lou Renaud-Bailly on stage left – provide the live, unsettling music. Their spotlit presence on stage is all Aspeli needs to emphasize the theatricality of the piece.

This theatricality is only heightened by her use of over 50 puppets, many life-sized or even larger than life, manipulated by a cast of seven. The mingling of life-sized puppets with live actors has a deliberately unnerving effect. Especially when far more than seven men arrive in raincoats and hats to sign up to join Ahab’s ship, we have trouble telling who is real and who is not. This technique gets right to the heart of a story that questions the nature of what we call reality.

Aspeli uses rod puppets manipulated from below or or bunraku-like puppets where three black-clad puppeteers (kagezukai) manipulate separate parts of the puppet’s body. Yet, at one point she makes significant use of a marionette. She has the moving death’s-head figures fasten rope-like strings to a larger-than-life sized Ahab puppet, hoist him up and pose him various positions. Ishmael refers in Chapter 1 to “those stage managers, the Fates”, and Aspeli could not dramatize Melville’s idea more clearly how narcissistic it is for mere mortals to assume that they can control their destiny.

All of these effects are enhanced by moody lighting or Xavier Lescat and Vincent Loubière and by the projects of David Lejard-Ruffet, which never overwhelm the the puppets as the main focus of the action. The one time Lejard-Ruffet is given free rein, when Ahab’s ship the Pequod sets sail, we see the lovely model of a ship floating on the stage’s second level while  Lejard-Ruffet’s projection of a nautical chart whirling around it as if the ship had set off into a realm of chaos, of which the sea for Melville is a prime symbol.

Aspeli shows us many scene of whales (beautifully manipulated puppets) swimming in a pod or singly. She show us also a whale being captured and gruesomely (although with great technical imagination) being stripped of its blubber. The size of none of these puppets prepares us for the first appearance of Moby Dick  which is truly breath-taking. The coordination of the three puppeteers needed for the great white whale is amazing.

Greater wonders are yet in store although I must say that in Moby Dick’s final, gasp-inducing pass across the stage at the play’s conclusion, I was surprised that Aspeli had not pictured Ahab affixed to the whale by his own harpoon line, one of the signal images of the novel, and a symbol of Ahab’s self-destructive quest.

Plexus Polaire’s Moby Dick is an astounding piece of theatre, one of the best examples of the perfect integration of all the resources of theatre for story-telling that I have seen. Many attempt such multimedia plays, but few succeed. Anyone who wishes to see an ideal example of such theatre should not miss the chance to see Moby Dick. It is theatre that brims over with imagination rather than special effects. We shall have to hope that Harbourfront and Why Not Theatre find an occasion to invite Plexus Polaire back to Toronto to astonish us again.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ahab; Queequeg fighting sharks with Ishmael in the distance; Ahab; Moby Dick. © 2022 Christophe Raynaud de Lage.

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