Yngvild Aspeli Creates a Beautifully Dark Epic
by Beau McGlasson
Melville’s Moby Dick: a ship captain descends into madness, pursues a massive white whale, and encounters the darkness of the human spirit. At the Public Theater’s “Under the Radar” Festival, Plexus Polaire, a French-Norwegian company, delivers their version of “Moby Dick.” It’s an epic tale of American resilience, pride, and folly—and a visual masterclass onstage.
At NYU’s Skirball Center, the group features a fluid mixture of life-like puppets an captivating actors. Together, they illustrate Captain Ahab’s madness on a larger-than-life scale. Since Ahab screams constantly, we cannot make out his words, but their impact remains. Creepy, dark atmospherics deliver fantastic spectacles, leaving the details to our imaginations.
This is a must-see show that delivers on its visual promise. In addition, “Moby Dick” maintains an emotional core that humanizes the brilliant live animations. Director and puppeteer Yngvild Aspeli focuses on Ahab’s emotional struggle with Nature. He frames the story with Ishmael’s narrations—a common sailor’s naïve views of the ongoing crisis.
The cast features life-size and bigger than life-size puppets. Ahab is portrayed in close-up scenes by a seven foot puppet. Ingenious lighting and realistic movements conceal the puppeteers as they work, creating a deliciously dark sense of being not quite human. Techies call that uncertainty the “uncanny valley.”
Many audience members, myself included, left the theater unsure which characters are puppets and which human. It’s as if we were drawn into Ahab’s madness, unable to tell real from fake.
Three musicians perform the show’s music live on stage, including a percussionist, guitarist, and bassist. They react to the performers and dominate the show. At times, the band’s deafening chaos envelops us. At other times, they offer soft, angelic hymns that propel the energy.
“Moby Dick” keeps us on the edge of our seats. From pulsating, heavy metal guitar riffs to lighting that deftly shifts our perspective from side view to top-down, the effects are astounding.
Aspeli’s company reenacts naval battles and even brings on a GIANT Moby Dick (and I mean GIANT) that swims across the stage at the end of the show. This cinematic experience demands our attention and completely commanded mine. I felt like a deckhand on Ahab’s ship, destined for the great deep. A marvelous, magical voyage.
“Moby Dick” created by Plexus Polaire, directed by Yngvild Aspeli, puppet production by Yngvild Aspeli, Manon Dublanc, Polina Borisova, and Sébastien Puech, at NYU Skirball, New York, N.Y. Info: PublicTheater.org – to January 14, 2023.
Cast: Andreu Martinez Costa, Cristina Iosif, Daniel Collados, Laëtitia Labre, Madeleine Barosen Herholdt, Viktor Lukawski, and Julian Spooner.
Musicians: Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen, Guro Skumsnes Moe, and Havard Skaset.
Banner photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage