Ten brilliantly talented performers, an inspired director/adapter, and a dazzlingly ingenious production design team join talents on South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage as Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company’s acclaimed Moby Dick visits Costa Mesa, proof positive that you don’t need a hundred-million Hollywood bucks to turn a Herman Melville classic into two-and-a half hours of epic storytelling magic.

David Catlin scores sky-high marks, not only for compacting Melville’s tale of a 19th-century sea captain’s obsessive search for the great white whale that left him with a whale’s-bone prosthesis in place of a human leg, but for doing so in the most theatrical of ways, including some of the most thrillingly acrobatic feats of aerial derring-do this side of Cirque Du Soleil.

Credit scenic designer Courtney O’Neil for her imaginative set, one that frames the mammoth Segerstrom stage with whale’s ribs which actors mount as if there were no gravity pulling them down.

Credit rigging designer Isaac Schoepp for the yards upon yards of rope from which sails rise, performers swing, and suspended platforms turn into whaleboats that take fearless mariners out to harpoon their colossal prey.

Credit costume designer Sully Ratke for not only creating character-defining period wear but for confectioning billowing black skirts so ample, they can fill an entire stage to supremely dramatic effect.

Credit lighting designer William C. Kirkham and sound designer Rick Sims for upping the dramatic impact throughout, and aerial/acrobatic choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi for making us believe in weightlessness.

And credit a phenomenal Chicago-based ensemble who bring Melville’s cast of characters to unforgettable life in roles that may well be the most physically taxing of their careers.

A terrific Jamie Abelson comes of age as Ishmael, the narrator-protagonist through whose eyes we relive Melville’s great adventure, beginning from a meeting with Anthony Fleming III’s towering delight of a Queequeg, the tattooed South Seas prince-turned-harpooner whose gradual friendship with Ishmael could give 21-century best buds a lesson in bromance.

Walter Owen Briggs gives first mate Starbuck a leading man’s looks, stature, and physique and a hero’s valor and heart, in addition to a couple of fine featured turns as a sermonizing Father Mapple and Dr. Burger.

Raymond Fox doubles splendidly as second-mate mensch Stubb and (in one of the play’s most powerful sequences) as Captain Gardner, a man in desperate search of a son lost at sea.

Sharing aerial/acrobatic kudos are the truly phenomenal Micah Figueroa (Cabaco) and Javen Ulambayar (Mungun).

And then there are The Fates (Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster), a trio of Princess Leia-coiffed, mid-19th-century hoop skirt-clad sirens who add mystery, melody, and weirdness throughout, with Dewdney scoring powerful bonus points as a whale whose harpooning, hoisting, and skinning simply devastates and, once again suspended high above, as the luminous atmospheric phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire.

Above all there is Christopher Donahue’s malevolent, maniacal, magnificent Captain Ahab, a performance of such Shakespearean proportions, if he hasn’t yet played Lear, it should be tops on his bucket list.

Casting is by Philip R. Smith. Adeoye and Chris Mathews are understudies. Kathy Logelin is dialect coach. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Mary Hungerford is stage manager.

When SoCal’s premier regional theater imports a production rather than its customary locally-produced fare, you know the out-of-town visitor must be something special indeed. Lookinglass Theatre Company’s Moby Dick is all that and a whole lot more.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 1, 2017
Photos: Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company, and Debora Robinson/SCR

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