The big question in your mind as you plow through Hermann Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” is this: How can a man get so obsessed as to give up his life to kill a whale? The simple answer is revenge. The deeper answer is something that Assemblage Theater doesn’t give you in its breathtaking stage adaptation, on this month in the Tacoma Youth Theatre space. But it does spend 2 1/2 hours diving deep into the madness and power of that revenge, recreating Captain Ahab’s 19th-century whaling ship with frightening conviction.
It starts with the set: a central pile of chairs (shades of artist Allison Hyde at Tacoma Art Museum), two ladders reaching into a star-spackled wall, the odd sea chest and a floor splattered whale-blood pink. Credit to designer Erin Chanfrau: It’s more a memory than a theater set, so it’s perfect for this story, which is not so much a tale of a whaling tragedy as the painful, heart-shattered memory of one.
The memory, of course, is that of Ishmael, and Tim Hoban does a phenomenal job of both embodying the naïve wanderer-turned-sailor and narrating the entire play. He brings a Shakespearean flair to Melville’s sublime prose, coupled with an engaging honesty, and with very few memory blips — a whale-sized feat. Around him is a supportive cast with some bright stars: Mark Peterson reserved and poetic as the reluctant first mate Starbuck (plus innkeeper Peter Coffin); Heather Christopher wide-eyed and fearless as Queequeg, the harpoonist who becomes Ishmael’s soul-mate; Kaylie Rainer wild and mad as both the prophet Elijah and the cussing mate Flask.
But it’s Captain Ahab, that scary sea captain who drags an entire crew on his fatal quest to hunt down the white whale Moby Dick, who’s the anchor of this tale, and Dennis Rolly throws himself into the role, complete with a real Abraham Lincoln-like beard. He’s fierce, he’s relentless, he’s mad, and he sucks you into his vortex like the rest of the Pequod’s crew.
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Throughout, director David Domkoski makes the most of the intimate, three-sided space, turning this narrative into a kind of poetry with expressive movement (Katie Lappier), eerie soundtrack (Stanley William) and a powerful choreography of chant and tableaux.
The one thing that’s missing is character development. We don’t see how the sailors gradually succumb to Ahab’s cult-like domination. We don’t see his transition from revenge to madness. There’s a lot of piratey “aarrs!” and not much subtlety,
In the end, though, none of this matters. The whaling scenes fly with blood, salt and lustful violence. The waiting is ominous. And finally, as the crew of the Pequod sink beneath waves both real and metaphorical, you’ll stare in horrified fascination along with Ishmael.
You don’t need the book. Just don’t miss this production.
Moby Dick-The Tale Retold
Who: Assemblage Theater, directed by David Domkoski.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Sept. 24, plus 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22.
Where: Tacoma Youth Theatre, 924 Broadway, Tacoma.
Tickets: $15 general; $10 student, senior and military.