Caitlyn Louchard and Sam Jackson join a mission to save the whales in Central Works’ new musical, "Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale." (Courtesy J. Norrena)

Music is a highlight in Central Works’ ‘Project Ahab’

Adaptations of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” abound, but Central Works’ longtime resident playwright, Gary Graves, is re-envisioning the classic in a fresh way.

If Graves’ concept is a bit too expansive — and if he and director John Patrick Moore attempt to be too literal — for the close confines of their tiny venue, “Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale” is a noble effort that warrants re-thinking.

Graves sets his long (actually too long, and too erratically paced), episodic tale in 1973. Wide-eyed teenager Izzy (a petite and endearingly intense Caitlyn Louchard) heads north to volunteer on a “peace” vessel with a group of hippies who intend to “bear witness” to the ruthless commercial killing of whales.

She brings along a new photojournalist friend, Cree (an appealing, taciturn Sam Jackson). The two women join two crew members: beer-swilling but clear-focused Hunter (Michael Barrett Austin) and spacey, kinetic Mel (Ben Euphrat, who is also the show’s musical director).

Like Melville’s Ahab, this ship’s captain (Clive Worsley is powerful in the role, but has a delivery so staccato that he’s sometimes hard to understand) is obsessed with a mystical connection to whales. He’s even more obsessed with wreaking revenge on the captain of the Russian whaling fleet who long ago physically tortured him for attempting to block their whale-hunting activities.

Conflicts erupt, especially between Hunter and the captain, as fuel runs low and the captain reneges on his promise to run a nonviolent mission.

But the conflicts don’t really surface until the second act. The first act is not very dynamic, beginning as Izzy sings while packing her gear, followed by a didactic slide lecture (Worsley uses a thick Scottish accent, for some reason) about whales.

Some of the play’s best writing emerges in Izzy’s brief narrations, which are lyrical and imaginative. That, and an electrifying tale told by Hunter, are highlights.

Less successful are the labored physical efforts to depict the seafaring action; even with some projections and an evocative soundscore (both by Gregory Scharpen), it’s hard to suspend disbelief when actors are peering and pointing at a wall right in front of them and claiming to see whales. A more abstract approach — with fewer attempts to indicate atmosphere and activity through gesture, and more development of character and interpersonal conflict — might have better served Graves’ themes.

Particularly lovely are the songs (all the actors sing and play instruments). Some are traditional, with others by Country Joe McDonald and Jesse Colin Young.

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