Challenges inspire innovations in ‘Moby-Dick’ stage play

It takes imagination on an epic scale to look at a run-down, landlocked, century-old warehouse full of disused building materials and picture it as the backdrop for a play about an obsessive sea captain hunting a white whale. But an epic sense of imagination is exactly what the new theater company Saïah brings to its production of “Moby-Dick,” currently running at the Lifecycle Building Center, a 60,000-square-foot warehouse in southwest Atlanta.

“It’s almost as if it’s an inverted ship,” says Phillip Justman, who plays Captain Ahab, pointing to the soaring ceiling of the 1914 former sprocket factory, now a storage facility for recycled building materials. “The height and drama of this building are just breathtaking.”

» MORE INFORMATION: Facts about Saïah's production of Moby-Dick

For the hour-and-a-half show, audience members don’t just sit in place. They migrate through the building’s interior and exterior as they follow the narrator, Ishmael, on his journey from Manhattan to New Bedford to Nantucket. Then they settle into seats aboard the whaling ship Pequod — the cathedral-like central space of the warehouse — to watch the hunt for the great white whale. The building has multiple levels, movable staircases, loading docks, working hooks, pulleys and cranes, all of which the innovative theater company uses to tell the famous story of “Moby-Dick.”

It’s not the first time the artists have tackled the play. Members of Saïah, including Justman, Marium Khalid and other primary actors in the cast, first met as students at Kennesaw State University where John Gentile, who adapted the script, is head of the drama department. They first performed Gentile’s “Moby-Dick” as students in a conventional production at KSU in 2008. In 2009, the cast was invited to perform the work at the Theatre Festival of Casablanca in Morocco, where it won honors for best performance and earned Justman best actor for his portrayal of Captain Ahab.

Soon after graduation, Khalid and Justman decided to form a professional theater company, choosing the name Saïah from the Urdu word for canopy-shade. One of the group’s first productions was an unconventional staging last year of a surreal, adult retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, called “Rua | Wülf.” For the show, audience members followed the characters around all the nooks and crannies of the Goat Farm Arts Center, a former cotton gin factory in West Midtown. The show was a runaway success. “We had people scalping our tickets,” says Justman. “It got to that point where we were like: Let’s expand.”

Khalid, the play’s director, and Justman chose to expand by returning to “Moby-Dick” for their next project. They faced not just the challenge of staging the show in an unusual space, but the challenge of working together for the first time as a married couple: The two wed last October. “There is this power shift suddenly because I’m telling him what to do: I’m the captain,” says Khalid. “What we realized is that as long as we honor each others’ work and trust that what one is saying is to benefit the other, it will push the work forward.”

Though the shows’ creators considered several non-traditional spaces to produce their play, they decided the evocative warehouse was a perfect fit for the classic tale. “You get the sense there once was life here, there once was something that’s so much bigger than what we see now,” says Khalid.

Creating the play wasn’t just a matter of re-imagining a warehouse as a whaling ship, but re-imagining a group of Atlanta actors as a hardened crew of 19th-century sailors. “We brought in anyone who could teach them the language of that world,” says Khalid, who scheduled time for the cast to meet with sailors, experts in nautical ropes, historians and scholars. “We wanted them to learn it not just intellectually, but to get it in their bodies, get it in their bones.”

The cast even forged their own whaling harpoons in the shop of Atlanta blacksmith Mike Hopper.

actors can learn to embody a swarthy crew of sailors, and a warehouse loading dock can serve as a Nantucket wharf, but the cast and crew often get asked the same question: How are you going to do the whale?

Obviously, a major challenge of bringing Herman Melville’s story to the stage was the fact that one of the main characters weighs 90 tons and lives in the ocean.

“I immediately moved to a more symbolic and abstract idea, which is something that live theater can do so well,” says Gentile. “The concept became: How do we embody the essence of the whale?” In the production, actress Briana Brock plays the Whiteness of the Whale, a beautiful, spectral female presence in a world of men.

“It’s something very different than what you’d expect in a production of ‘Moby-Dick,’” says Gentile. “It creates a sense of otherness about her. You have this male crew, and then this one female figure.”

Challenges and innovations aside, the artists say that their focus remains on sharing with audiences what they love about the book.

“Someone told me he’d tried to read ‘Moby-Dick’ and couldn’t do it,” says Gentile. “And then he saw the production and went back and read it. He said now it’s his favorite book. That’s a really gratifying feeling.”

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