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In ArtsEmerson’s ‘Moby Dick,’ puppetry in motion

A scene from Plexus Polaire’s puppet-driven production of "Moby Dick" at ArtsEmerson.Christophe Raynaud de Lage

It seems safe to say we’re in a golden age of puppetry.

Newton’s Julie Taymor got the ball rolling in 1997 with her brilliant stage adaptation of “The Lion King” (which is still running on Broadway, all these years later).

Since then, works such as “War Horse,” “Life of Pi,” “Avenue Q,” and “Hand to God” — not to mention the boundary-busting creations of figures like Basil Twist — have illustrated the breadth of subject matter that can be explored in puppet-driven productions.

Now comes “Moby Dick,” an adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel about obsession and the workings of fate, by Yngvild Aspeli, directed by her and performed by the French-Norwegian theater company Plexus Polaire, where Aspeli serves as artistic director. The latest of many international productions ArtsEmerson has brought to Boston over the years, it’s scheduled to run through this Sunday on the Robert J. Orchard Stage in the Emerson Paramount Center.

On a visual level, this “Moby Dick” is a transfixing display of technical virtuosity for nearly the entirety of its 85-minute running time. On a storytelling level, the production is less satisfying. Aspeli has poured most of her interpretive energy into matters of spectacle and mood, at the expense of fresh insight into a well-known tale.


It could well be a deliberate trade-off on her part, born of a not-unreasonable belief that the look and feel of this “Moby Dick” break enough ground that it represents a sufficient reimagining. We are immersed not just in sights but in sounds, thanks to musicians Emil Storlokken Ase, Georgia Wartel-Collins, and Lou Renaud-Bailly, who play downstage, giving the production a pulsing energy.

All theater requires the suspension of disbelief, but puppet-driven productions make an extra demand on audiences: The puppeteers are plainly visible, but for the experience to be a fulfilling one we need to ignore them and focus on the puppets.


In “Moby Dick,” we first see the crew of the whaling ship Pequod as they emerge from out of a swirling mist (a mixture of smoke from a smoke machine and video design by David Lenard-Ruffet) and slowly walk upstage. They are a corps of life-size puppets whose stony visages capture, in exaggerated form, the ruggedness of 19th-century whalers.

Captain Ahab in a scene from Plexus Polaire's production of "Moby Dick."Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Scott Koehler is the main puppeteer and growling voice of Captain Ahab, who is larger than life-size, with facial features ravaged in a way that speaks to Ahab’s madness, and his monomaniacal determination to kill the white whale who bit off his leg on an earlier voyage.

Boston-born Julian Spooner is Ishmael, the narrator, who weaves in and out of the story he is telling, his presence on the periphery of scenes a bit distracting at times.

The scene where Pip (Alice Chéné), the cabin boy, falls overboard and is the subject of a frenzied rescue — an innocent on the verge of losing his life because of one man’s obsession — is very powerfully staged.

Theater artists have been repeatedly drawn to “Moby Dick” over the years, and Melville’s novel has proven capacious enough to accommodate a variety of styles.

An adaptation by Orson Welles was presented in London in 1955, set in a mid-19th-century theater, and then mounted on Broadway in 1962, with Rod Steiger starring as Captain Ahab. It was a colossal flop, lasting only 13 performances.


In December 2019, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater presented a musical adaptation by Dave Malloy (”Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812″) directed by Rachel Chavkin.

Eight years earlier, in a stripped-down version, the Irish actor Conor Lovett performed “Moby Dick” solo, directed by his wife, Judy Hegarty Lovett.

A musical, a solo play, an Orson Welles project, a 1998 TV miniseries starring Patrick Stewart, a 1956 film starring Gregory Peck — now it’s puppetry’s turn.

But you get the feeling we’ve not seen the last of “Moby Dick” adaptations.


Adapted and directed by Yngvild Aspeli. Production by Plexus Polaire. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Jan. 28. Tickets $25-$92.50. At 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.