If you go into Project Ahab: Eye of the Whale thinking that it will be a traditional stage adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, you will be sorely disappointed. Although Central Works' latest production finds its inspiration in the literary masterpiece, it is a unique story, teeming with captivating characters, dynamic musical numbers, and its own ambitious plot.
Project Ahab playwright and Central Works co-director Gary Graves summarizes his latest work as "Ahab goes after the whalers," which is as succinct as it gets. In his reworking, the ship at the center of the story is not the "Pequod," but rather the "Rainbow Warrior II," and its crew is not a bunch of motley whale hunters, but Seventies-era hippies hell-bent on taking down a Russian hunting vessel. It's a strange twist that, along with the flamboyant costume design, inspires chuckles from audiences almost immediately after being revealed.
The first of many well-produced sea shanties launches just after the play begins, courtesy of Izzy (or you could call her Ishmael). The plucky orphan (played by Caitlyn Louchard) is headed to Canada to join the Rainbow Warrior's fight to save the whales — but first she stops at a commune, enjoys some LSD, and picks up Cree (Sam Jackson), a no-nonsense photographer who became passionate about peace while covering the Vietnam War. But when the young women arrive at their destination, they receive some ominous news: Apparently, Captain Franklin of the Rainbow Warrior (played with severity by Clive Worsley) has a new mission, and despite his claims, it isn't saving whales. Rumor has it that Franklin is seeking revenge on the captain of a Russian hunting vessel who supposedly captured, castrated, and left him for dead in the middle of the ocean.
Of course, Cree and Izzy still set out to sea along with firstmate Hunter (Michael Barrett Austin), a trippy dude who acts as the voice of reason, and engineer Mel (Ben Euphrat, who also serves as the musical director), a man overjoyed at the prospect of communicating with the whales through "groovy" melodies. Despite their captain's redirected focus, the four shipmates all remain hopeful that Cree will take a photo powerful enough to bring awareness to the plight of the whales, thus banning hunting permanently. Soon, however, staying alive under the mad captain's tyranny becomes the highest priority, and the group's wide-eyed optimism is thrown overboard.
While Project Ahab's story is inventive enough, it's the live music and gifted cast that make it a striking production. The actors play their own instruments — including tambourine, drums, and electric guitar — to well-suited songs from the early Seventies. Joe McDonald's "Save the Whales" is a particularly apt fit, while lyrics from B.W. Stevenson and the Youngbloods also make appearances. All members of the cast are capable of carrying a tune, but Louchard, who studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, has a phenomenal voice. Her acting chops aren't bad, either — she somehow manages to stay afloat despite being weighed down by occasionally heavy-handed dialogue and soliloquies.
Central Works rarely produces musicals, but Project Ahab is one of the company's better shows in recent memory. The use of projection equipment to display night skies and whale eyes in the small venue is a pleasing touch, although the colossal paper whale hanging on one of the walls is a curious addition — especially because none of the characters interact with it or acknowledge its presence. Still, stage manager Vanessa Ramos assembled a convincing collection of old-timey ship gear that sets the scene effectively.
Project Ahab is part of Central Works' 25th season and is its 48th world premiere. The theater company advertises itself as having produced more new plays by local playwrights than any other in Berkeley, making it one of the go-to places to see experimental productions in the East Bay. And while this spin on Melville's classic is one of its more ambitious shows, it's executed with quality. From start to finish, Project Ahab is a whale of a tale worth a standing ovation.