BWW Interview: Christopher Donahue Takes to the Seas and the Stage in Arena Stage's MOBY DICK
When it comes to the giants of literature, Moby Dick's Captain Ahab easily ranks among Gatsby, Oliver Twist and Holden Caulfield as one of the great characters. For actor Christopher Donahue, there's something quite sympathetic in the tortured sea captain who's obsessed with capturing the colossal whale.
"In terms of Ahab, he's completely crazy. The term monomania was something that was being written about, in both fiction and non-fiction, around that time. Melville's father-in-law was a federal judge and wrote extensively about monomania as it related to crime and the courts," says Donahue. "And yet, it's possible to understand Ahab because of his own self-awareness, he knows very well that he's mad and that because of the cards he's dealt, he has to go after this whale."
Beginning this week, audiences will have a chance to get reacquainted with Ahab, Ishmael and Herman Melville's 1851 classic when it takes to the stage and the air at Arena Stage in a new production by Lookingglass Theatre Company. Portraying Ahab is the chance to return to a story and character Donahue has loved.
"I'm extremely fond of the book, and it's the only book I will reread over the years," says Donahue. "Over the course of my career, I get drawn to these characters, these giant characters from literature."
Lookingglass' production was adapted from Meville's novel by David Catlin, who is also directing the show. The production was the perfect storm of events for Donahue with a book he loves and a director he's long admired.
"David [Catlin] had two shows at Lookingglass, which I was very impressed with, The Little Prince and Lookingglass Alice. So I was intrigued by what he might bring to Moby Dick," says Donahue. "He has a seriousness and passion about this stuff, but he also has a light heart."
This is not the first time Melville's epic saga has been theatrically adapted. Two years ago, DC audiences saw an operatic version of Moby Dick at the Kennedy Center. So what is it about the story that lends itself to the theatre?
"Parts of the book are written in the structure of a play making it a natural that it would be adapted to the stage." says Donahue.
However, Lookingglass' adaption is unlike any which has come before. Based in Chicago, and winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre, Lookingglass' Moby Dick opened in 2015 and is now touring the country. When asked what describes the Lookingglass style, Donahue says two characteristics come to mind: physicality and the circus.
"Lookingglass is known for a kind of storytelling that is highly physical'," says Donahue. "They've always been fascinated with the circus and how you infuse circus-like elements into story."
While one may think of Cirque du Soleil when hearing of circus and theatre, Donahue is quick to espouse the notion.
"This isn't Cirque du Soleil. With Lookingglass what you have is straight theatre, with highly stylized movement, narration and these big design events. In the case of David Catlin's direction, the action is enhanced by these moments of circus."
One example he cites is the ocean, where much of Moby Dick's action take place. In this case, let's just say so as to not spoil the effect, that the seas are really high in this production. For Donahue though, there is the added challenge of portraying one of literature's great villains.
"There's something very Shakespearean about Ahab because he feels and does big things, you have this man who turns his back on humanity and God and tries to wrestle with nature head-on. My intention is to make him human, in spite of his grandness, and a lot of his frailties and the subtleties of character can be gleaned from the novel. It's always kind of a goldmine for an actor to have a novel like this at their disposal. There's a lot to be discovered in there," says Donahue.
It's been 165 years since Melville's novel was first published. Since then, it's become a staple of high school literature classes and constantly ranks as one of the great American novels. Why do audiences keep coming boarding the Pequod to chase after the giant whale? Simple says Donahue, "It's a straight-up adventure story."
Photo: Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Walter Owen Briggs as Starbuck in Moby Dick, which runs November 18-December 24, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Credit: Greg Mooney.