Moby Dick comes alive in brilliant Studio Theatre play

Or the Whale Studio Theatre GigCity EdmontonHerman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published in 1851. It may have flopped then, but we have not escaped this watery tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white whale since. There have been many movies, television shows, adaptations, plays, college English essays – even Orson Wells became obsessed with it, but that’s another story.

The latest retelling of the tale is a ferocious theatrical undertaking by U of A’s Studio Theatre on the part of long-time Edmonton actor and MFA directing candidate Chris Bullough, along with actor Michael Peng and members of Wishbone Theatre. After seeing this brilliant display of stagecraft at the Timms Centre, where the play runs through May 21, my suggestion to the U of A Drama Department is give the guy his degree and send him out. He’s ready.

Bullough has taken Melville’s densely-packed 635-page doorstop and turned it into a visual feast. He has managed to transform the difficult and often opaque original novel, with its mighty storms, rolling seas, high-masted sailing ships, and, of course, epic battle between man and beast into a gripping piece of theatre. The original, as I remember from several efforts to get through it, was filled with digressions, soliloquies and asides. Good and evil are discussed. Stage directions are given.

Somehow Bullough has found the play that has been waiting in all those pages all those years.

The staging of the famous “Nantucket Sleighride,” the delirious aftermath of hooking a whale and have it charge and sound in its throes while pulling a small whaling craft packed with terrified whalers on a roller-coaster of death, is probably as close as anyone of us will get to the real thing. The director exhibits a real feel for what it’s like to be at sea – and he grew up in Alberta (specifically Fort McMurray), thousands of miles from the nearest ocean.

Or the Whale Studio Theatre GigCity EdmontonDespite its setting, much of what happens in Moby Dick takes place in the mind. Of course, there’s Ahab’s obsession and growing madness. He screams at Starbuck, his mate, “Speak not to me of blasphemy. I’d strike the Sun if it insulted me.” Ishmael – “Call me Ishmael” (one of the most famous first-lines ever penned), played by Michael Peng, is mostly just an observer.

Not all the sailors are willing to follow their crazed Captain into the crooked jaws of the “merciless, inscrutable thing” that waits below. Queequeg (Jesse Gervais), the cannibal Maori, remains an enigmatic character – we never know what drives him. The sturdy Starbuck (Murray Farnell) tries to keep a steady course but finally is caught up in the frenzy generated by the epic confrontation. “I came here to hunt whale and not my Captain’s vengeance!” he says. Bullough effectively stages his cast in a stylized manner as if they are engaged in same kind of pagan religious ceremony.

Or the Whale Studio Theatre GigCity EdmontonThe staging is quite spectacular although it is kept simple. Bullough makes great use of large pieces of silky material as canvass for the ship’s sails. They also become the several small boats rowed by the sailors and finally the great “hateful
fish” itself destroying the crew and indeed the entire Pequod. Peng, besides playing Ishmael, takes on a number of roles while wandering about the stage using mics to pick up small sounds, aiming stage lights to frame a face or to cast massive shadows on the canvasses. Doug Mertz as Ahab goes strikingly mad.

There could be no review of this play without mentioning Matthew Skopyk’s awesome soundtrack. I grew up beside the ocean and was used to hearing it in all its moods. I heard sea sounds in this production – from the gentle lapping at the side of a large wooden boat to the overwhelming watery roar caused by the charging leviathan – that I haven’t heard for a lifetime.

The world premier of Or The Whale, a production of the U of A Studio Theatre (and Wishbone Theatre), will run in the Timms Centre for the Arts through May 21.

Photos by TJ Jans