Review: ‘Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale’ at Central Works (*****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Izzy(Caitlyn Louchard) and Cree (Sam Jackson) join the crew of the Rainbow Warrior 2 on a mission to save the whales in Central Works’ new musical,
Izzy (Caitlyn Louchard) and Cree (Sam Jackson) join the crew of the Rainbow Warrior 2 on a mission to save the whales in Central Works’ new musical, “Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale.” Photo Credit: J. Norrena.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

To say that “Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” is ambitious is an understatement. How could Gary Graves and the Central Works company possibly imagine squeezing the massiveness that is Moby Dick into the rectangular parlor that serves as both stage and house at the Berkeley City Club? It’s absurd. But a couple of years ago, this team (writer Gary Graves and Director John Patrick Moore) successfully and brilliantly staged the history of the revolutionary French Commune of 1871 (“Red Virgin“). If a revolution can fit, why not Melville’s whale of a tale? It can and, thanks to the brilliantly conceived script and staging, it does.

Well, it’s not exactly “Moby Dick” of couse.  “Project Ahab” is actually a contemporary tale about whale hunters and their whale loving adversaries, inspired and informed by Melville’s masterpiece. The spirit of Melville’s genius is fully present, but the details of the story have undergone a fascinating sea change. The story is revisioned in the tale of the “Rainbow Warrior 2,” an anti-whaling vessel, and its fictional Captain Franklin (clearly modeled after the very real Paul Franklin Watson). Gary Graves summarizes the piece as “Ahab goes after the whalers.” The summary is accurate enough, but fails to do justice to this fantastic and moving work of theatre.

It opens with a young sub sub of a lab assistant, Dr. Sponge (Clive Worsley), who humorously lectures us (like the opening passages of Moby Dick) concerning the history of whales and whale hunting, after which appears a young woman, Izzie (Melville’s Ishmael, of course), who seeks to find herself by going to sea to save the whales from aggressive hunters. In a lovely moment, she sings a sea chanty accompanied by recordings of whale song. It packs an amazing punch. Soon, at a commune, she encounters the mysterious and tattooed Cree (Queequeg), who after a night of LSD tripping and a desert sunrise, agrees to accompany Izzie on her quest to join the crew of The Rainbow Warrior on its mission to find and disrupt the cruel work of a Russian whale-hunting vessel. This will be accomplished by the  life risking tactic of placing themselves between the massive ship and the whales, while Cree, a professional photographer, documents the encounter. Clive Worsley briefly reappears as a mysterious street prophet who warns them of the mad Captain Franklin, after which they successfully join the Rainbow Warrior’s crew.

Captain Franklin (Clive Worsely) answers only to the whales, not the people. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.
Captain Franklin (Clive Worsely) answers only to the whales, not the people. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.

The subsequent story closely follows Melville’s tale. There is an earnest, idealistic first mate, Hunter (Melville’s Starbuck), the mad Captain Franklin (Melville’s Ahab, played by the impressively versatile Mr. Worsley), and the strangely moving, addled character of  Mel (Melville’s Pip). Despite Hunter’s pleas for sanity and concern for the safety of the crew, they are all caught up in Captain Franklin’s mad and dangerous pursuit of the whale hunters. The story builds, with increasing excitement, to the inevitable tryst.

‘Project Ahab’ uses traditional sea chanteys, original songs, poetry, science, superb acting and musicianship, and passionate commitment to tell the tale. This production has a soul as big as Melville’s masterpiece, and cannot fail to move. When I attended on opening night, I couldn’t help but notice my fellow audience members (we are seated across from one another) who, like me, were slack jawed in awe and awash in tears and laughter throughout the performance. At intermission, the excitement was palpable — we couldn’t wait to get back inside for more.

This is Central Works 48th world premiere, and it’s a wonder. “Project Ahab” is must see theatre! It’s work like this that keeps us coming back.

“Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” plays at Central Works through August 23, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” written by Gary Graves in collaboration with the company. Directed: John Patrick Moore. Musical Direcction: Ben Euphrat. Sound and Projection Design: Gary Scharpen. Properties Design: Debbie Shelley. Costume Design: Tammy Berlin.

Cast:

Hunter: Michael Barrett Austin. Mel: Ben Euphrat. Cree: Sam Jackson. Izzy: Caitlyn Louchard. Franklin/Dr. Sponge/Elijah: Clive Worsley.

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