Coinciding the end of its run with the Fertile Ground Festival, Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble (PETE) adapts Juli Crockett’s meditation on the famous legless sea captain, Ahab, with style, humor, and controlled chaos. The piece functions as both a fictional mission to recapture Ahab’s missing limb, and an existential journey into the subconscious of the mad captain.

Moby Dick is my favorite book, and there possibly isn’t a better-known or loved story of obsession in the American psyche, than Herman Melville’s encyclopedic whaling epic. An ex-girlfriend once refused to give me back my copy, and to this day, it’s one of the biggest grudges I hold. Suffice it to say that while I approached director Peter Ksander’s experimental spin-off with excitement, I knew I would take anything less than an unfaithful rendition a little too personally.

One can only keep track of so many Moby Dick-related grudges.

Thankfully the whip-smart script has found a perfect intellectual home with PETE. Ksander — also a renowned set-designer — doubles in this role, creating a simple, yet engaging backdrop at Reed College’s new, ultramodern Performing Arts Building. The metal catwalks and chrome-like hangings give the aged subject-matter an of out-of-time feel. It succeeds in feeling simultaneously past and future, while feeling nothing like the present.

Jacob Coleman, Rebecca Lingafelter, and Cristi Miles each inhabit the same character, but with a different approach and unique form of disheveledness. And while they’re all credited equally as Ahab, they seem more like a crew, which while lost at sea begins to take on the characteristics of its captain. This, more or less, turns out to be the case, but the true fun of this kind of experimental theater is the rules are ever-changing, scene to scene, and even moment to moment. Indeed, each of the three leads seems to take turns going into an Ahab-induced trance. Just when the other two begin to doubt the validity of their nearly impossible — and clearly pointless — mission, the third Ahab is always prepared with a dizzying eloquent monologue, which equally compels and and confuses them back into a frenzy over the lost appendage. And, perhaps when all three begin to doubt, a kind of boss-level Ahab (Maureen Porter) is waiting just off stage to make sure their aren’t any breaks of full sanity.

Amber Whitehall’s Pip further complicates matters: challenging anyone one of the Ahabs’ assertions, often leading to full-scale mayhem on stage, where props are moved, knocked over and often thrown across the stage. Her physicality comes off as effortless, but is actually quite impressive, considering the stage construction is surrounded on all sides by a sizable drop-off and concrete floor below.

Paige McKinney’s character of “The Deep” performs mostly off-stage, but makes an appearance in full solid-goal deep sea diving gear, while she voices her narration over the loudspeaker from inside the suit. It’s a simple production, but the degree of poise and technical craftsmanship that went into these feats can’t be overlooked. She rounds out an impressive cast, and even as the majority of which plays the same character, it produces a full range of individually brilliant performances.

From Or, The Whale, pictured left to right: Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles, Rebecca Lingafelter, Paige McKinney. Photo by Owen Carey.
From Or, The Whale, pictured left to right: Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles, Rebecca Lingafelter, Paige McKinney. Photo by Owen Carey.

Perhaps most interesting is the perspective — by choice or happenstance — that PETE’s mostly-female cast brings to this almost cartoonishly-masculine subject matter. The thing that has made Ahab such a lasting literary figure is that his obsession is so relatable. So, while he is also the villain and ultimately leads his entire crew, save for one, to their watery deaths, his obsession is still that — something we can all relate to. Women, however, don’t always seem to have the freedom to be unhinged in public — at least to the extent that they are here. I’m not saying there’s an agenda at work, but the absence of double-standards is refreshing.

A former professional boxer, playwright Crockett is probably as equipped to raise these kinds of concerns as anyone, but has a lot more macro-scale questions to ask. For example, would it be good for all Ahabs to forget what they are searching for in favor of something new? Or would that result in mistaking the new thing for something as good as the old? And, how would they know either way, since they’d forgotten entirely what the old thing was?

That thing is, of course, the leg. And, those searching for it will not be disappointed, either literally or metaphorically.

The script should be commended for such an astute reading of Melville’s themes. It’s not easy to throw darts at this kind of giant and get away with it; but like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or, the whale has such good aim, it’s hard to begrudge it. Sometimes tough love is the best kind.

Keep an eye out for future PETE productions. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they are putting on the boldest and bravest productions in town.

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