Moby Dick [Under the Radar 2023]

Held at The Public Theater’s flagship building at Astor Place and five partner venues, Under the Radar Festival is a highlight of the winter arts season in New York City, spotlighting the best of experimental theater from artists around the world. The 18th annual edition of the festival runs from January 4 to 22 and features 36 productions, ranging from full-on orchestrated epics to introspective monologue stints. TV and City will be attending and covering several Under the Radar shows.

By Aharon Nissel

The only thing people know about Moby Dick is that there’s a whale. And indeed, whales abound in this compelling adaptation of the novel, which opened last week at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. The show, from the French-Norwegian puppet company Plexus Polaire, led by Yngvild Aspeli, first opened in 2020 and is now on a brief tour of the US (it moves to Chicago after NY).

This spectacle of the show follows a sketch of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which centers around Ishmael, a young sailor who embarks on a whaling ship in search of meaning and purpose. The ship is led by the egomaniacal Captain Ahab, whose sole mission in life is to take down the whale that snatched his leg years prior. While Ishmael is in search of aspirations, lacking direction in his life, Ahab is the opposite: focused on one thing and one thing only, at the exclusion of anything else. Ultimately though, the raw and majestic power of the sea and her cetacean residents prevails.

Moby Dick is performed by seven actor-puppeteers, who flow seamlessly between those two roles, and sometimes operate as both at once. In a few instances, it takes a moment to discern if someone on the stage is human or puppet. The puppets range from oversized human marionettes to smaller doll-like figurines. And, of course, there are the whales. The whale puppets range in size and material, and the different whale puppets expertly navigate the large Skirball stage, deftly swimming in and out of the depths. The performers move in diverse ways, blurring the line between stage direction and choreography.

The musicians employ a range of instruments: cello, drum, guitar, trombone, and others (was that a piece of tin foil being crushed?) to breathtaking effect. In addition to music, the instruments produce shockingly convincing sound effects of rushing water and creaking wood, displaying just how diverse a sound can be made without any high-tech assistance. The instruments are accompanied by vocals, ranging from songs with lyrics to otherworldly chants, heightening the spiritual quality that pervades much of the show.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the puppetry. The show’s central theme is the might of nature, a might that far overpowers humans. And yet, the whale, which ultimately embodies this, is a puppet, controlled on the stage by humans. Perhaps the human is relatively weak in physical power, but only we contain the capability to be inspired by nature and harness it for art.

Moby Dick is all about hunts. Ahab hunts for a whale. Ishmael hunts for meaning. And the Public hunts for theater that is “richly distinct in terms of perspectives, aesthetics, and social practice.” Ahab certainly failed in his hunt. The jury is still out about Ishmael. But what is certain is the Public, at least with this production, has succeeded in its hunt for innovative and breathtaking theater that inspires and amazes.

‘Moby Dick’ ended its short run on January 14. Find more information HERE.