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This Chicago Director Brings 'Moby Dick' To The Stage...With Shadow Puppets

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 30, 2016 9:05PM

Photo by Kipling Swehla

Puppets are not typically associated with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but for Chicago director and puppeteer Blair Thomas, they're ideal for telling such a metaphorical story. “Puppetry is, by its nature, a metaphoric art,” he told Chicagoist.

Thomas, head of Chicago puppet theater Blair Thomas & Co., will illustrate exactly that in his latest show, a shadow-puppet-filled production of Moby Dick that has already sold out its upcoming three-day run at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Over 10 years in the making, Thomas's stage adaptation of the classic employs "largely shadow puppetry," he explained. However, he and his team "also use paper as an evocative stage image, so there are material objects on the stage." Though the show moves Moby Dick into a modern setting, its narrative hews roughly to the book's: Captain Ahab obsessively hunts to kill Moby Dick, a giant sperm whale. The play, like the book, is narrated by the character Ishmael, who survived the voyage with a manic Ahab, compulsively driven to conquer the whale.

“I am very interested in how the book has many ideas and images that are really not fully stageable," Thomas said. "[I am] trying to describe things that cannot literally be seen. The mystery surrounding 'what is Moby Dick' is something I was interested in. Puppet theater and its particular attributes provide a staging of the metaphorical ideas.”

The performance's series of tales will feature a Japanese style of puppet theater called bunraku. The style's jointed characters made of wood and paper, which are so large it takes three puppeteers to operate one, relive Moby Dick's story alongside Thomas.

“In... following the traditions of folk puppetry," Thomas said, "I wanted to take a complex literary masterpiece and find its themes that would resonate as a performance.” Puppetry, he explained, is close to folk in that it distills complicated ideas into visuals.

Music by composer and percussionist Michael Zerang adds heft to these visuals. (Thomas has collaborated with Zerang since 1991.) Singer-songwriter Michael Smith will also lend his voice to Zerang's instrumentation. Zerang, Thomas explained, will play onstage, improvising on "a myriad" of musical instruments.

"We built him a coffin hurdy-gurdy that he plays," Thomas said. "He also has a roller organ and a Middle Eastern saz.”

Showtimes for the show, which runs March 31-April 3, are listed here. The show is sold out, but the MCA starts a wait list an hour before each performance, per the policy here.

The MCA is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Update, April 1: A new showtime has been added to the show's MCA run: a 3 p.m. performance on Saturday. Tickets are available here.

As for where the show will head next, "We would love to put it up again," Sandy Gerding of Blair Thomas & Co. told Chicagoist. "We don't currently have plans for that, but given the fact that it immediately packed the house and got a standing ovation on opening night, we think more people might also enjoy it."