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[or, the whale]

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Oct 16, 2017
[or, the whale]
  (Source:imaginary beasts)

imaginary beasts kicks off its new season with a brand new work and a fresh partnership with Charleston Working Theater.

Playwright Juli Crockett wrote "[or, the whale]" without reference to characters or to whom any given line of dialogue should belong. Even the title possess a slightly slantwise sensibility; "Or, The Whale" is the subtitle of Herman Melville's classic American novel "Moby-Dick." But this is not a retelling of Melville's novel. Rather, it's a dreamlike riff.

Crockett's approach leaves key decisions about the piece to director Matthew Woods and his cast, the six members of which -- Raya Malcolm, Sam Terry, Leilani Ricardo, Jamie Semel, Danny Mourino, and Ciera-Sade Wade -- portray three versions of Captain Ahab, a character called "Ish" (evidently Ishmael, the narrator of the novel "Moby-Dick"), and the ocean itself.

Raya Malcolm in '[or, the whale]'  (Source:imaginary beasts)

As the play begins, Ish (Terry) is adrift, clinging to a bit of wood, possibly a tenant of Ahab's sunken ship. There's no trace of the whale (unless it's to be glimpsed in the set design of Lillian P.H. Kology, who seems to have set part of the performance space within the belly of the beast), but the sea -- or, at least, a character called "She" (Malcolm) -- seems to be toying with Ishmael in the manner of lapping waves. She is clad in a layered blue dress (the work of costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin) that suggests briny depths and kinetic topography; the chop and swell of the water is mimicked in the dress' cut.

As Ishmael drifts, a number of episodes (or chapters), each with titles that are uttered aloud by the cast, begin to unfold. Captain Ahab is looking for his lost leg. What does it mean that he once possessed all his limbs, and no longer does? In this case, it means that Ahab manifests as three similar -- but crucially distinct -- individuals (played by Ricardo, Semel, and Mourino).

Movement coaches Molly Kimmerling and Amy Meyer bring a balletic sense to the show's choreography. It's not dance, exactly, but it's not far from dance; playful and often fluid, the choreography seems like a physical manifestation of the dialogue, which is a balletic outpouring of words: Poetry mixes with humor, and philosophy with puns as Crockett's script deliberates about mortality, physical change over time, and eventual disintegration.

Some of the questions raised are almost childish: If a man's height (which, in a practical sense, could be viewed as his "greatness") is a measure of his vertical distance from top to toe, then could Ahab's leg-severing mishap with the whale have rendered him the greatest of men? After all, his missing limb floats thousands of miles away. On the other hand, do the diminutions perpetrated by time, accident, and age count for much? Who are we right now, and is that individual identical to who we were before -- or who we will be later on?

  (Source:imaginary beasts)

Crocket plucks at notions of self and the continuity of identity, and Woods, in fashioning action to illustrate the play's open-ended and wide-open intellectual vistas, maintains a careful distance from anything that might be too narrow, too literal, or too confining. Sometimes the result feels downright mystical; at other junctions, as the actors charge back and forth, hop into and out of an outhouse-like cabin, an atmosphere of festival reigns. The entire production has a feverish, hallucinatory quality about it -- which could deb the reason why, aside from Ishmael and Ahab, only the character Pip makes it from the novel into this play. Pip, a cabin boy, ended up in the sea for an extended time in Melville's story; the experienced so frightened him that when he was finally fished out of the water, he'd gone mad.

A mad sense of irreality is this show's defining characteristic. The questions raised here certainly could drive one around the bend, and there are times when one is far from certain just what to make of the show's often-frenetic activity. But there's method in the madness, and rigor in the performances and direction. The songs -- contributed by local band Kangaroo Rat Music -- lend texture and mood, but no answers. Eventually, you have to ask the question you suspect Crockett has led you to: Can we grasp essential truths about anything in the world, including our own selves? Or are we truly stranded at sea, the certainties we took for continents really nothing more than debris as glimpsed through the distortions of our fevers and our needs?

"[or, the whale]" continues through Nov. 4 at the Charlestown Working Theater. For tickets and more information, please to to http://www.imaginarybeasts.org/imaginary_beasts/Now_Playing%21.htmlM/i>

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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