An acrobatic whale tale

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

What's your personal responsibility when you're being led by a vengeful, mentally unstable narcissist?

That, of course, is the question at the heart of Lookingglass Theater Company's production of Moby Dick that's currently playing at South Coast Rep. As you'll probably remember from some high school summer reading list, Moby Dick is the saga of Captain Ahab and his quest to exact revenge on the elusive white whale. Caught up in that journey are the lives of Ahab's diverse crew and the innocent wives, mothers and sisters they leave behind as they sail to the other side of the world.

The play, like the novel, really finds its life once we're on board the whaling ship. Lookingglass has taken inspiration from the ship's rigging to create a set that's a series of curved steel pipes that frame the stage and evoke the giant rib cage of a whale. Those pipes, and the ropes and ladders that surround them, become a sort of jungle gym for the cast who shimmy up and dangle off them like gymnasts.

The small boats that drop down to go after the first sighted whale, are brought to life by two wood planks hanging from ropes that become giant swings -- pulsing forward almost over the audience. It's a lovely visual metaphor capturing both the movement of an imagined sea and the sailors’ precarious state suspended above a dark fate.

You also likely remember that Melville's classic is epic. Said less charitably, it's long -- so there's both a lot of material to draw from and, if you're squeezing it into two hours and fifteen minutes, condense. That's both a blessing and, like the voyage itself, a curse for Lookingglass. A blessing because it affords the company a wealth of physical and visual possibilities but . . . there's so much to choose from that at times the production loses its course and struggles with a cohesive tone.

While Ahab and Ishmael feel like full characters, Queequeg feels like a broadly outlined caricature. That cirque-like aerial work is both visually stunning and poignant when a suspended twirling performer is a stand-in for a butchered whale. But those same tricks later feel extraneous during a canned music, suspended drowning scene that feels like bad circus filler. At times the production succumbs to its own spectacle.

In the end, you'll forgive this production its momentary missteps and remember its stunning visuals and inventive staging. You'll be haunted by the three women who come to represent not only those women left on the shore but the whales and the ocean itself. When a performer's dress unfurls to become the vast sea, you'll be transported.

And yes, as the noble Starbuck struggles with his personal responsibility in the face of a captain who's gone mad and seems to care for no one but himself ...let's just say it's hard not to find that all too topical.

Lookingglass' Moby Dick is worth the trip south, just be prepared that not everything is smooth sailing.

Moby Dick plays at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through February 19.

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo by Liz Lauren