A Plexus Polaire Production co-presented by Whynot Theatre at Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre
Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator
Another breathtaking production this fall at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, Moby Dick, is a dazzling and awe-inspiring whale of a tale. The sold-out opening night performance of Plexus Polaire’s theatrical adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 American classic, co-presented by Why Not Theatre as part of the Festival of Cool and Nordic Bridges, held me and the audience transfixed in a visually stunning 85-minute presentation told by seven actors, three musicians, 50 puppets, miniatures, video projections and a life-sized whale!
A shame Toronto audiences had only 3 performances!
This show should run for months!
French-Norwegian puppetry company Plexus Polaire has created a brilliant fusion of live actors, puppets (sometimes difficult to discern from real-life actors), music, models, and video. This adaptation, based on Melville’s own experience on a whaling ship, follows the sailor Ismael’s (Julian Spooner) narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab (operated and voiced by Viktor Lukawski), captain of the whaling ship Pequod, seeking revenge against Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that, on the ship's previous voyage, bit off Ahab's leg at the knee.
I’ve seen some incredible puppet performances over the years. Toronto’s own Famous People Players troupe are renowned for their fabulous black light performances.
But what makes Plexus Polaire's show transcend even this is the way artistic director Yngvild Aspeli seamlessly integrates human actors, puppets and their operators becoming active participants in their scenes. A black stage is set with what appears to be two giant upright whale bones far upstage (cleverly revealed later to be the ribs of the Pequod’s massive hull) as Ismael’s monologue explains his alliance with Ahab and crew in the old skipper’s mad act of vengeance. Moody and ethereal music, songs (in Norwegian and English) and sound effects masterfully punctuate the storytelling and are performed live on stage by Georgia Wartel Collins, Emil Storløkken Åse, and Lou Renaud-Bailly.
Smoky dim side lighting replicates the dim flicker of 19th century oil lamps and evokes the sea's coldness and the futility of the crew’s doomed voyage. We are introduced to the crew, including Starbuck and Queequeg and others, wooden characters given the breath of life by this extraordinary troupe of actors/puppeteers (Andreu Martinez Costa, Yann Claudel, Laetitita Labre, Madeleine Barosen Herholdt). It’s magical and absolutely engrossing! Clad in black robes and masks while simultaneously operating sophisticated, sometimes larger-than-life puppets and miniatures while providing voices for their respective wooden partners, this troupe performs with flawless precision. Kudos to costume designer Benjamin Moreau for adding a frightening skeletal visage to the puppeteer/actor’s black garb, positioning them as bringers of death in the disturbing gloom.
But it’s Ahab himself where the artistry is on fullest display. He walks the deck with his peg-legged limp, steers his ship, even smokes a pipe. He madly reviews charts and maps in his quarters, beard and whisps of hair flowing wildly, while shouting mad refrains, “From hell’s heart, I stab at you…for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at you”. This is more than an effigy of wood, hinges, and cables. These puppet masters create an almost living character, an active player in this drama. His head even has a nervous tick, so expertly incorporated but never overused. Detailed. Perfect. Ingenious.
Another highlight was director Aspeli’s cinematic use of perspective. As scenes transition between the deck of the Pequod, further upstage, and the captain’s cabin, downstage and closer to the audience, the former life-size puppet is replaced for a latter version more than twice the size, creating the illusion that we are physically closer to the character, not unlike a camera’s closeup. Later, the Pequod encounters a pod of puppet whales and slaughters the mother of a lone calf for its oil and blubber. This was incredibly realized using miniatures of the ship, its crew in longboats, and several puppet whales made to expertly “swim” 6 feet above the darkened stage.
Suddenly, the whales, ship and longboats were turned from a vertical to a horizontal position, making us no longer look at the sides of these objects, but rather at the top of the ship and whales from on high, like a drone camera’s eye view. Breathtaking innovation I’ve never seen used in this way. Awesome!
More must be said about the intricate, evocative lighting provided by wildly creative designers Xavier Lescat and Vincent Loubière. Their selective use of intensity and light placement created an atmosphere that concealed the puppeteers when required while making them fully visible when integrating them into a scene. From the crow’s nest to the decks to the hold of the ship, the lighting seemed naturally sourced - the moon, oil lamps, sunlight etc.
My only quip is I felt some of the lower deck scenes with the puppet crew were a little underlit. The puppets were so detailed in their faces and wardrobe, it would have been joyous to revel more in that attention to detail. The beautiful video projections, courtesy of David Lejard-Ruffet, transported us to the open oceans, swelling storms and the madness in the mind of the monomaniacal captain and his fanatical mission. Spectacular!
While the brilliance of his theatrical event is evident, I had some minor concerns with the storytelling itself.
As Ismael, Julian Spooner seemed a bit soft-spoken and reserved. As the only survivor of Pequod, I was hoping for a crustier sailor with a harder edge to his delivery. The crow’s nest scene lost some energy and seemed to linger with pregnant pauses, slowing the pace and energy. While I found the music and sound effects eerily appropriate, they often overpowered much of Ahab’s fanatical diatribes, muddling his King Lear-like prose. This may also be due in part to Viktor Lukawski’s performance sacrificing clarity for howling. I was also missing a personal, climactic encounter between Ahab and Moby Dick. Seeing the whale crush the miniature ship in its jaws seemed a tad anti-climactic. Surely a more grandiose showdown between the puppet antagonist and protagonist could have been achieved as the show already breaks so much ground in its novel style and achievement.
This show is power, spectacle, ingenuity, and artistry in equal measure. A tale for the ages, a feast for the senses, a display of masterful possibilities!