Believe it or not, Melville’s MOBY DICK was only recognized as a masterpiece in the 1930s. Although his early tales of his South Seas escapades, jumping ship, for example, achieved brief popularity, he died in obscurity in 1891. (His readers found the heavily symbolic tome utterly unfathomable.) Luckily for us, IMAGINARY BEASTS (now at Charlestown Working Theater) have joined forces with Juli Crockett’s fanciful, hypothetical play [or, the whale] which places Ahab and Melville himself (“Call me Ishmael”), not the whale, at the epicenter of this cautionary tale.
I’m convinced that Imaginary Beasts’ director Matthew Woods is a painter at heart. Instead of canvas, he layers images like pigment, one over the other, so that we see the first only for a second before it’s covered with another (but registering both somewhere in our consciousness). And because Crockett’s script is a poetic armature without specific dialogue or character delineation, the Beasts can work their magic and flesh it out fearlessly…and that they do, with not one, not two, but three frenetic Ahabs (Leilani Ricardo, Jamie Semel and Danny Mourino).
Crockett contemplates a “temporary eternity” at sea and giddy solace in the art of forgetting, her wonderful fugue on “finding and forgetting” for the multiple Ahabs being my favorite moment in the piece. The jaunty sea chantey score (by Kangaroo Rat Music) happily lightens the perilous adventures which open with Melville (an intense Sam Terry) hardly alive, clinging to some flotsam in the middle of the ocean. She (the stunning Raya Malcolm) tosses him mercilessly about and then lovingly embraces his comatose form. Ahab’s cabin boy (a sweet Ciera-Sadé Wade), alas, is lost overboard to the abyss.
The play achieves extra resonance each time we’re reminded that the ocean covers two thirds of the world, (soon to be far more now that the glaciers are melting at breakneck speed). Malcolm is a lithe, seductive ocean, dancing and caressing Ishmael, even becoming the bowsprit on his banging, creaking, wooden ship (cleverly designed by Lillian P.H. Kology in segments assembled on stage) which Christopher Bocchiaro lights with a foggy haze.
This being an IB production, there are of course ingenious paper puppets (Sophia Giordano), human puppets (in Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s inspired costumes), various preposterous peg legs and an eerie shadow show, performed under a vast sculpture by Kology reminiscent of shipyard vessel skeletons or perhaps an anchor, all wallpapered and wrapped with pages (I presume) from Melville’s novel.