Perusing the program before the start of Chicago Lookingglass Theatre’s “Moby-Dick” (thru 28 August: http://lookingglasstheatre.org/event_page/moby-dick/), I noted that three out of the nine actors, a good third of the cast, were women. This was strange, I thought; I had read Melville’s novel and could not recall a single significant female figure. Yet I would soon see in director David Catlin’s thoroughly conceived, expressionist staging that the female element is crucial. The women (Emma Cadd, Kasey Foster and Monica West) enter with Ishmael. While he offers his famous soliloquy, telling us what to call him, the three women in black nineteenth century garb ominously chant “loomings.” They foretell the future and so recall the three fates of Greek myth. Their chanting soon turns to song, setting the maritime mood with traditional sea shanties, and so they function as a sort of folk chorus to this demotic tragedy. Later they pull a drowning sailer under the waves and, like the witches in “Macbeth,” watery weird sisters, they foretell Ahab’s doom: that “only hemp” can kill him. (Ahab misinterprets this prophecy to mean that he is fated for the gallows and so must be “immortal” so long as he remains at sea.) In an old sea-chest stashed in a New England barn, the poet critic Charles Olsen uncovered Melville’s heavily underlined and annotated complete works of Shakespeare, which Melville had read while writing Moby-Dick. We know that the Bard, especially his tragedies, inspire much of Melville’s plot and poetry. The Lookingglass “Moby-Dick” channel’s Melville’s “Macbeth.” Like the Scottish king, Ahab is misled by witches’ half-truths to his doom.

Unprecedented, however, is the play’s end where the women appear as the white whale itself. This choice is as surprising as it is effective. The sperm whale is, of course, an obvious phallic symbol from its looks to its name. Melville’s story is masculine and at times explicitly homoerotic. (I had a feminist professor in graduate school who dismissed the book for exuding “too much testosterone.”) But here at Chicago’s old Water Tower, the white whale is a she, and she is terrifying. The obvious Freudian interpretation, that Ahab has been castrated by this overgrown albino flat-tailed spouting fish and now vainly vents all of his frustrated libido at God’s brute creature, must be complicated. Now the whale appears as the white wrath of a three-headed gorgon punishing men for their sins against nature, pursuing killing for profit and, worse, personal vengeance. Men’s sins are expressed in a most exquisite moment, the tri-works scene where the butchering of a whale is presented as a woman hung upside down, spun and stripped. As the flesh-pink fabric of her skirts is pulled off, the whale bones underlying her fashionable petticoats are pitifully exposed. It is typical of this production that acrobatics and circus arts are subsumed in highly symbolic story-telling.

The final stunning image is of woman as the ocean. Her black skirt covers the entire stage, embroidered with stars, gently billowing like the sea-surface at night. She brings the story’s resolution by embracing and kissing each of the Pequod’s dead. The moment is unlike anything in Melville’s novel, but instead recalls Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” where death is figured as an old crone rocking a cradle with the waves and singing a lullaby of “death, death, death.” Lookingglass Theatre has created a hauntingly beautiful, compellingly original re-telling of Melville’s primal American myth.

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Christian Sheppard blogs about all things strange, about wonder and horror in literature, film, and the culture at large. He is presently finishing an historical horror novel about chariot-racing, witchcraft and demonic possession in the dark ages of Byzantine Constantinople. He is also editing a non-fiction book "The Ancient Wisdom of Baseball," on baseball and religion, a philosophical "apologia" for raising his first child a Cubs fan. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.saic.edu/profiles/faculty/christianmsheppard/

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