FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Plexus Polaire

Plexus Polaire: Moby Dick

January 18-21, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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The Crisis of Scale in Plexus Polaire’s Moby Dick

An Essay by Marissa Fenley

The scale of the whale in Moby Dick is often understood as Herman Melville’s challenge to literary form. In other words, it is formally impossible to compress the whale’s massive size to the scale of the novel—a feature that disrupts and distorts the narrative’s spatial logic. We might observe this in the prosthetic augmentation of Ahab’s peg leg or the dizzying overextension of man’s control over nature. If Moby Dick poses a challenge of scale to the novel, Plexus Polaire’s adaptation translates this problem to that of the stage. In their hands, Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession with Moby Dick also becomes a crisis of scale.

The stage opens on a school of silvery fish swimming against a black, sinewy backdrop of the sea. The fish scatter as the tail of a giant whale is seen projected in the black expanse, swimming away from us into the distance. The fish and the whale—the miniscule and the gigantic—can only be represented as coexisting in the same black waters through a trick of cinematic perspective: The fish are up close; the whale is far away. The projector screen then lifts as a crew of sailors slowly filter out onto the stage, emerging from the rib cage of a giant whale skeleton. The sailors sway back and forth, dressed uniformly in blue-gray raincoats as they wait to board the Pequod. We are returned to the normative scale of the theatrical stage, which is measured by a familiar metric: the size of the human body. The rib cage of the whale reminds us of the scalar impossibility of representing it onstage; unable to contain the behemoth in its fullness, the stage must settle for its fragments. 

And yet, there is another perspective shift at play. Half of the sailors who have lilted onto the stage are puppets and the other half are human actors. Mingled together in a uniform hoard, it is nearly impossible to tell them apart. Actor and puppet exist on the same continuum of scale—a theatrical language that Plexus Polaire uses to deftly blur the distinction between the living and the dead, a choice which echoes much of Ishmael’s musings on life at sea under Captain Ahab. Ishmael, our narrator, serves as our consistent, if not unreliable, link between the incredible events that occur aboard the Pequod and the reality of life on land—and is importantly played by an actor. While the actor-sailors offer us a tether to the landlocked life we know, the puppet-sailors enable us to imagine the kind of half-waking life Ishmael describes. However, preserving human scale as a rubric allows the uneasy realism of the scene to work; the puppets aboard the ship comingle with the actors, sharing the liminal sea space between madness and sanity, barbarism and civilization, and mystery and truth. 

Almost as soon as Plexus Polaire establishes the human body as the normative scale of the stage, they break this tenuous contract. While Captain Ahab initially appears as a life-size puppet manipulated by unseen puppeteers in the shadows behind him, once we move to the character’s private chambers, he is replaced by an oversized puppet now dwarfing his handlers, who visibly shadow him, dressed in black. The deathly resonance of these shadow figures becomes evident in the inclusion of three similarly clad figures in skull masks who set up Ahab’s desk with the tools of his own demise: his protractors, maps, and ledgers that he uses to track the movements of Moby Dick. As Ahab’s movements become increasingly frenetic, more puppeteers are required to animate—and corral—his flailing form. 

In the scene that follows, Ahab laments his lost leg, surrogated with a wooden peg, bitten off by the White Whale and the source of his quest for revenge. In a moment of delirious rage, Ahab slams his fists on his drafting table, sending his maps and ledgers flying into the air. As his tracking implements swim around him, a miniature whale joins their orbit. The whale slips into the same scalar economy as the tools of Ahab’s doomed quest to chart the whale’s migration through unchartable waters. Ahab’s madness is here rendered as a misrecognition of scale—a simultaneous inflation of his own power and a deflation of the whale’s massive form. And the representation of Ahab’s madness through spatial distortion is echoed yet again as his peg leg is replaced by a gangrene phantom limb that is reattached to his bloody stump. However, this limb violently breaks off from Ahab’s stump and swims eerily over his head as he claws to grasp it. The same size as the phantom whale, Ahab’s phantom limb visually echoes the same creature whose belly it now dwells within.¹  

During the whaling scenes, where the Pequod dangerously encounters the leviathans of the sea, we return to a realism of scale. However, in order to do so, the entire scene is miniaturized. The vastness of the ocean must be compressed to fit the spatial limitations of the stage. Miniature harpoons are thrown from miniature boats steered by miniature oars. And the pod of sperm whales, while dwarfed by comparison to the black space that surrounds them, more than doubles the size of the miniature sailors in their miniature boats. The sea’s black depths are thus translated into theatrical form; the impossible expanse of the sea is represented by a bleeding darkness that engulfs not just the stage but the entire theatre. With no visible walls, the confines of the stage space can no longer be discerned. 

If Melville’s Moby Dick renders the whale’s scalar impossibility—its incomprehensible largeness—by representing its incommensurability within literary form, Plexus Polaire offers their own formal challenge. They place a projector screen across the entire expanse of the stage onto which they project an image of a life-size whale fully to scale. The whale cannot be taken in at once, but rather must swim across the projector screen, its massive form only to be beheld in parts. At first, it is unrecognizable—it appears as nothing more than a blue mass. It isn’t until its black, blinking eye glints in the light that we recognize the blue mass as the whale’s enormous head. Unlike the previous scenes where the illusion of uninterrupted space gives us the sense of an endless sea-like expanse, here the edges of the stage are impossible to ignore. The whale cannot be contained by the confines of the stage. In fact, it cannot even spill into the wings—not even the building. Plexus Polaire not only delivers us with a certain sublime terror in encountering the whale’s eye frighteningly up close but also the impossibility of its theatrical containment.  

1  I owe this observation to my student Toby Chan.

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