In search of the great, white…leg

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "Moby-Dick" journey heads for the lower extremities

The focus of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s latest installment of its 18-month investigation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” becomes apparent right away. It’s not Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, or Queequeg, the South Seas harpooner. And it’s not a great white whale, even though the title of this play is [or, the whale].

In fact you can be forgiven for asking this production, hey, where’s the whale? Moby-Dick isn’t part of playwright Juli Crockett’s take on “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale”—which happens to be the full title of Melville’s great novel about whaling in the 19th century, neither fluke nor flipper.

Jacob Coleman, Rebecca Lingafelter, and Cristi Miles all play Ahab in '[or, the whale]' for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

Jacob Coleman, Rebecca Lingafelter, and Cristi Miles all play Ahab in ‘[or, the whale]’ for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

No, the focus is on Ahab, the obsessed Captain of the Pequod, and not really even on him, more on a part of him: his leg. Or rather his missing leg. The focus is on something that isn’t there. “There is nothing worse than having nothing where there once was something,” is how Crockett puts it in the play. Crockett’s play isn’t about revenge against a whale, it’s about a search for a leg.

Now, in the audience we don’t miss Ahab’s leg. When Rebecca Lingafelter shows up onstage early in the play, we know she’s Ahab because of her peg leg. Or really, her own bare leg gleaming white with make-up and a metal device of some sort next to her big toe that raps loudly on the wood of the stage as she stalks around it. It’s a great effect. Soon, that white percussive instrument of a leg has company: Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles join Lingafelter onstage, and they have the same white leg, the same device, the same clacking. It can get loud when they walk in unison, and this effect—original, funny, thought-provoking—gives us an early metaphor for the show as a whole.

Three of the Ahabs talk things over with The Deep, played by Paige McKinney./Owen Carey

Three of the Ahabs talk things over with The Deep, played by Paige McKinney./Owen Carey

[or, the whale] is densely choreographed. The Ahab legs, sure, but also Amber Whitehall’s Pip, who is especially animated, and even the three simple tables that occupy a lot of space on that bare wooden stage. The tables move around a lot, too. But then the show is very “theatrical”: The set design by Peter Ksander (who also directs) is pretty minimal, the raised wooden stage surrounded by silver “curtains”; the lights (designed by Miranda k Hardy) are busy tracking those white legs, Pip’s forays around the stage and Paige McKinney’s appearances in a golden deep diving suit, not to mention playing off the silver curtains; and Jenny Ampersand’s costumes are appropriately nautical, especially when a FOURTH Ahab shows up onstage—Maureen Porter as an Ahab with the old fire and the old brimstone.

There are songs, dances and jokes, too, every line and movement inhabited in an interesting way by Porter and PETE regulars. The object of the play might almost get lost, given the poetry, language games and non-linear structure, except that Crockett, director and cast never let it go: the missing leg. How do we find what we’ve lost, in the immensity of the ocean, a single leg, possibly floating? Is a matter of strategy? Persistence? Faith? “What is the sound of one leg floating?” the play asks.

Maureen Porter's Ahab gives the business to Amber Whitehall's Pip in '[or, the whale]'/Owen Carey

Maureen Porter’s Ahab gives the business to Amber Whitehall’s Pip in ‘[or, the whale]’/Owen Carey

Another line from the play: “There is a Wisdom that is Woe, and there is a Woe that is Madness.” I don’t have a script, but I doubt that Wisdom, Woe and Madness are actually capitalized, but somehow it seems right. When I reflected on the line, I had the following thought: What do our four Ahabs think would happen if they found their legs? The key word is “think,” right? Because Madness and thinking, the way I’m using it, don’t really go together. Isn’t it unlikely that we will create a search grid for our equivalents to Ahab’s leg? But that’s my particular thought train; I’m confident that yours will vary.

So, yes, [or, the whale] troubles these waters, generating memorable lines and images—a roaring Porter, the sinuous Whitehall, the three Ahabs—along the way. As in the other two episodes of PETE’s “Moby-Dick” work, the raucous The Drowned Horse Tavern and the quiet hammocks of All Well, our distance from Melville paradoxically makes us feel closer to the material. Our guard drops, our critical faculties are befuddled, we are left to our own devices, swinging in the dark (All Well), making sense of the language ([or, the whale]) or figuring out the meaning of a situation that seems familiar (Drowned Horse Tavern). And here, mid-ocean, a certain reflexivity takes over: As we scurry about for “meaning,” one of the things we start to understand better is the power of art.

NOTES

PETE’s [or, the whale] continues at the Diver Studio Theatre inside Reed College’s arts center, through January 23.

PETE continues its work with Melville in June with Procedures for Saying No.

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