A whale-sized puppet swims into Pittsburgh for Plexus Polaire's Moby Dick | Pittsburgh City Paper

A whale-sized puppet swims into Pittsburgh for Plexus Polaire's Moby Dick

click to enlarge A whale-sized puppet swims into Pittsburgh for Plexus Polaire's Moby Dick
Photo: Christophe Raynaudde Lage
Plexus Polaire presents Moby Dick
How do you refresh a 170-year-old text, especially one that already boasts tons of adaptations? You add puppets — at least, this is the case with Plexus Polaire, a French theater company ready to present its version of a classic novel in Pittsburgh.

The Byham Theater will set audiences out to sea with Plexus Polaire’s production of Moby Dick. Based on the 1851 Herman Melville novel, the show adds not just puppets, but video projections, music, and other updated aspects to the famous tale about an ill-fated whaling expedition.

Presented as part of the Dentons Cohen & Grigsby TRUST PRESENTS Series, the show — playing Fri., Feb. 2-Sat., Feb. 3 — originally premiered in October 2020, and since then has played in theaters all over the world. In North America specifically, publications have lauded the production, with the New York Times and Toronto Star applauding its captivating approach to puppetry.

During a phone interview, Plexus Polaire puppeteer Laëtitia Labre tells Pittsburgh City Paper that bringing Melville’s maritime story to life required 50 puppets, including one whale-sized creation.

“It’s not really one puppet per one person, and most of the time there are several of us on one puppet,” says Labre.

Julian Spooner, the actor hired to play Ishmael in the English translation of the show, believes Plexus Polaire had to go big to capture such an “epic story,” telling City Paper, “You need to bring to life the infinite nature of the sea, you need to bring to life the scale of the giant whale, and the countless men on this ship in the middle of nowhere.”

According to Labre, however, the show is more than a grand spectacle. She says Moby Dick director Yngvild Aspeli “works with images and atmosphere instead of words,” and that puppetry allows them “to create more of a feeling as opposed to narration.”

“[Aspeli] uses everything she can to get to one precise feeling that is not really expressible with only words,” says Labre.
click to enlarge A whale-sized puppet swims into Pittsburgh for Plexus Polaire's Moby Dick
Photo: Christophe Raynaudde Lage
Plexus Polaire presents Moby Dick
Being taken from an epistolary novel, however, requires some form of narration, in this case provided by Spooner. In his role as the iconic storyteller who famously introduces himself in the book’s opening line, Spooner appears as the only visible human in the show, recounting how Ishmael became the only surviving member of Captain Ahab’s quest to find and kill a white whale.

“I think it’s an interesting adaptation of the story and it captures something of the atmosphere of the book whilst also being quite a fateful adaptation of it,” Spooner says. “It’s like a blending of Melville’s language with these heightened visuals.”

He adds that most of his lines are taken straight from Melville’s text. “There’s a real beauty to the language, and I think it’s easy to overlook how beautifully written the book was in terms of the way Melville wrote,” Spooner continues, adding that people tend to view Moby Dick purely as an adventure story.

Labre also sees the show as an example of how puppeteering has gained a wider appeal beyond the Muppets and kids' shows, and stresses that Plexus Polaire’s Moby Dick is “really not a show for children.”

“Theaters now admit that puppetry can be a show for an adult audience,” says Labre.
Moby Dick. Fri., Feb. 2-Sat., Feb. 3. Byham Theater. 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $25.25-45.25. trustarts.org

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