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A diverse retelling of “Moby-Dick” comes to A.R.T.

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A diverse retelling of “Moby-Dick” comes to A.R.T.
The company of Moby-Dick rehearses a number. PHOTO: MARIA BARANOVA

Herman Melville’s famous allegory of the great white whale is about to take on a whole new meaning. The world premiere of “Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning” splashes onto the American Repertory Theater’s stage Dec. 3 through Jan. 12. The show may be debuting just an hour from New Bedford, the seaside town where part of the novel takes place, but this adaptation by Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin is a whole new beast.

Starr Busby and Andrew Cristi in rehearsal for Moby-Dick. PHOTO: MARIA BARANOVA

Starr Busby and Andrew Cristi in rehearsal for Moby-Dick. PHOTO: MARIA BARANOVA

Of the many updates made in this presentation, race is one of the most important. The cast is predominantly actors of color, and the casting plays with gender and race to turn the show’s mission to kill a great white whale into a mission to destroy white supremacy.

According to Starr Busby, who plays first mate Starbuck, Ahab is the only white male character in the show. In his blind mission to find the whale, he completely disregards the humanity of his crewmembers, all of whom are people of color. They are doing the labor of the mission in service of Ahab’s vision, and yet he affords them no respect. Sound familiar? “It feels like a strong depiction of what it’s like to be a person of color in America under white supremacy,” says Busby. “This depiction, I think, is something that people will be able to see themselves in immediately.”

Creators of color shine in all aspects of this production. Choreographer Chanel DaSilva, who also choreographed “The Black Clown” at A.R.T., has been drawing on a number of different dance styles in the show.

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“Moby-Dick was created in 1851, but Dave is really interested in smashing that time period up against present day as we know it … I have had fun with letting the vocabulary of this movement live within many time periods,” she says. This means characters might be dancing a waltz or a mazurka à la the 1850s in one scene and then slide into the contemporary swag surf the next. “One of the main themes that has been driving me as a through line in the show is that these men are hunters, they’re whalers. My movement tends to be very earthy, grounded and powerful, so it felt easy for me to explore an earthy movement vocabulary for this.”

“Moby-Dick” will also feature intricately made puppetry by artist Eric Avery. Here the production has the opportunity to tackle environmental issues. As a commentary on the environmental ravages of the whaling industry and other major societal practices, all the puppets in the show are made from recycled materials. Oceans certainly no longer look like they did when Melville sailed them, and Avery illustrates that masterfully with each piece.

Like Melville’s novel, the show is set to be larger-than-life in every aspect. Malloy and Chavkin (who also created A.R.T.’s 2015 production of “Pierre, Natasha & the Great Comet of 1812”) have been workshopping the piece for at least five years. Finally, “Moby-Dick” is ready to wash up in Boston.

“This is truly epic in every way,” says Busby. “There is something for everyone inside of this show.”

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