MOBY: A Whale of A Tale is a seafaring show that takes audiences to an actual boat docked in the harbour at Queen’s Quay West. Moby-Dick, the famed tale by Herman Melville that has become synonymous with the the concept of doomed, obsessive revenge, gets a new life as a musical written by Gorgon Theatre’s Lena Maripuu and Annie Tuma and presented by Pirate Life Theatre. Let’s just say that you don’t want this site-specific piece to be the one that got away.
Young, naive narrator Ishmael (Annie Tuma) exhorts us to “let the compass of your heart/guide you to the watery part of the world,” while joining the crew of the whaling ship Pequod despite a complete lack of sailing experience. He makes fast friends with Queequeg (Jamar Adams-Thompson), son of Polynesian royalty and crackshot with a harpoon.
Meanwhile, the stalwart first mate Starbuck (Lena Maripuu), sighing over letters from home, grows increasingly worried over brooding Captain Ahab (Amaka Umeh) and her insistence on turning the voyage into a revenge cruise rather than a profit-making venue.
Ahab, of course, has grown single-minded in her desperation to bring down the white whale Moby Dick, responsible for the loss of her leg. She’ll do and risk anything to kill the creature that Starbuck protests was simply acting on instinct.
Every actor in the cast is thoroughly charming and poised, with strong singing voices. I loved Tuma’s narrative voice and winning, wide-eyed enthusiasm as Ishmael, and I thought that Adams-Thompson’s Queequeg exudes friendliness and a rakish smile as a protective older brother figure. Maripuu’s Starbuck has an economy of movement and a grounding presence that establishes her as the voice of reason.
Finally, Umeh as Ahab manages to pull off a delightfully scenery-chewing performance that somehow manages to not feel over the top, while she effectively shows the loss of her leg from only the subtly shambling movements of her gait. Some of the characters are gender-bent, which is handled seamlessly and without particular bearing on the story.
MOBY is designed for an audience of about 30, sitting in comfortable, brightly-painted Muskoka chairs for groups of two, and benches for larger groups. It’s hard to beat the Lake Ontario setting.
I was impressed by how well the boat and its surrounding environment were used. Resisting the potential of leaving the ship stage static as a one-note gimmick, director Alexandra Montagnese has instead choreographed a range of different angles and levels to signify storms, whale hunting, and chance encounters with other boats.
Queequeg can actually toss his harpoon (a disguised oar) into the water, and the resulting splash is quite satisfying. Meanwhile, both actors and audience undulate with the waves. Near the end, a contemplative number places a lone figure in front of a stunning sunset and nearly-full moon, letting nature provide its own unforgettable backdrop.
The folky music by Maripuu and Tuma, arranged and played by the band Moonfruits (Alex Millaire and Kaitlin Milroy), is tuneful and compelling, with lovely harmonies in the group numbers. The rhymes are clever and thoughtful, containing an overarching theme about the desire to experience freedom, and what that means to each character.
Ishmael seeks adventure and personal growth on the high seas, Queequeg wishes to escape his family’s position and responsibility, Starbuck seeks the financial freedom to support a family that a cache of whale oil will bring, and Ahab seeks release from her frantic obsession with the whale that took her leg. Each, consciously or unconsciously, seems to also be seeking a home, whether in each other, on the waves, or in a return to shore. Even the whale (Milroy) gets to sing for itself, boasting a wild spirit and a penchant for self-defense.
The 75-minute runtime means by necessity a very streamlined version of Melville’s epic. The adaptors keep the story tightly focused so that it doesn’t feel like anything is missing, despite swathes of cut characters and scenes. I did find myself hoping that Queequeg would get some additional attention, as his character development felt the least fleshed out.
MOBY is marketed as a family-friendly show, and in terms of content warnings, it is. However, one appealingly silly song about blubber with audience participation aside, I’m not sure that I’d call it a kids’ show. The language is elevated, as per the source, and the show ends the way the book does, with few survivors and a heaping helping of melancholy.
In fact, I think the show’s cutesy subtitle does it a disservice, implying a shallower sea than the one in which we find ourselves. In short: skipping this because you think it’s for kids would be a shell of a shame.
Name issues aside, I did, in fact, have a whale of a time at MOBY. Dress for the weather, and don’t miss the boat.
- MOBY: A Whale of a Tale plays at the Pirate Life boat (585 Queen’s Quay W) until Sunday, September 26th.
- Shows run Thursday-Sunday at 6:00PM, and Saturday-Sunday at 10:00AM.
- Tickets are $29 and can be purchased online.
- The show runs approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.
Photo of Annie Tuma, Jamar Adams-Thompson, and Lena Maripuu by Raiza Dela Peña