“It’s the perfect way of bringing something back to life,” says Julian Spooner, who plays the narrator Ishmael in Plexus Polaire’s puppet version of “Moby Dick.” “Everyone is kind of brought back into existence through the form of puppetry. … The puppeteers breathe life into these people who ceased to live.”
The show by the French-Norwegian theater company is presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston, from Jan. 23 to 28, 2024.
“I’m retelling the story of the voyage with Captain Ahab with the other sailors and whalers in their hunt for Moby-Dick,” Spooner explains. The 85-minute production includes seven performers, 50 puppets, video projections, a three-person “drowned orchestra,” and a “life-sized whale.”
“I like how the sea somehow draws invisible lines between the different corners of the world, how it creates points of connection,” Plexus Polaire Artistic Director Yngvild Aspeli says in a press release. “How, facing this force of nature, we are all the same. And no-one captures the battle between man and nature like Herman Melville in ‘Moby-Dick.’ An ancient white whale, a captain steering his ship into destruction and the inner storms of the human heart.”
This version of Ishmael—“he’s like a poet on a whaling trip,” Spooner says—emphasizes the suicidal thoughts that drove him to the sea and working for Ahab. The captain rages with his fatal obsession to chase and kill Moby-Dick, the whale who took his leg in a previous bloody encounter. The puppetry effects dramatic shifts in perspective and scale—a wide vista of a whale hunt, a bird’s eye view of the boy Pip drowning in a vast sea. Often characters, ships, objects seem to be floating through the air—dreamlike, ghostly. It gives the show a haunted air—like a 19th century gothic novel about a toxic workplace, or a global warming prequel—with all the crazy, destructive business of decimating the whale population just to acquire oil to burn in lamps.
Spooner is the only actor appearing on stage. The rest of the characters, and at times his Ishmael too, are represented by puppets. “My role in the show is to connect the audience to the humanity of the story and to remind the audience that somebody has lived through this experience and it has changed them,” Spooner says. “It’s about reminding them of the small human that’s at the heart of the epic adventure of ‘Moby-Dick.'”
Starbuck, Ahab, Pip and other major characters are “made in the bunraku style,” puppeteer Yann Claudel explains, “which is a Japanese style where we usually have three persons on it. The teams of puppeteers performing each individual puppet are shrouded in black from head to toe—often here in black sou’wester hats and long coats—which makes them disappear into the stage’s darkness and the puppets appear to walk around on their own. “Usually you have one [puppeteer] for the feet, then one holds the head and either the back or another arm.” String triggers on wooden handles that stick out of the back of the heads open the puppets’ mouths.
About 20 fishermen appear in an opening scene—actually six masked puppeteers, each holding a pair of life-sized sailor puppets with faces that match the puppeteers’ masks. And the show features three different sized Ahabs: “There’s a giant Ahab. There’s a man-sized or a 6-foot one. There’s a smaller one,” Spooner says. In one scene all three appear on stage at once—the mechanics of the effect are straightforward, but it feels like a nightmare, like time has fractured, like Ahab’s personality has fractured. It reminds me how basic stage magic can correspond to ritual—to create the feeling that spirits are among us.
Sock puppets become a shimmering school of fish. There are many puppets on sticks and rods—seagulls, whales, the ship, the whaleboats. Together the small puppet-boats become a panoramic vista of a heartbreaking whale hunt—“with a tiny boat we can have a broader view of all the other boats and the small whales,” Claudel says.
Many of the whales are sculpted from foam. Some have slices along the underside to better articulate the tails. “For the whales, it’s always the head first, up and down,” Claudel describes the movement. “We also have sharks. Sharks, it’s the opposite.” Side to side.
A “life-sized” Moby-Dick glides by at the end, looming, slow, majestic, a close encounter with the mammoth creature—the effect achieved via a large curtain that is pulled across the stage. ”Puppetry is always on the line of illusion,” Spooner says. “It works best when you’re flipping between being lost in the illusion and being reminded of it.”
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