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Mrs. Ahab Meets the Whale

CFA’s New InMotion Theatre debuts with The Journey

Yo-EL Cassell’s copy of The Journey looks less like a theater script than like the spell book of some Hogwarts professor with a frequent-buyer card at Staples. The pages in the three-ring binder show typical typescript stage directions and story, but there are also the curlicues of dance notation, historical pictures pasted in place, scrawled handwritten comments, and a flock of pink Post-It notes.

The Journey script

Director Yo-EL Cassell’s copy of The Journey is full of intricate handwritten notations, pictures, and Post-It notes, indicating the unusual creative process behind the show.

The play is a Moby Dick spin-off, the story of Captain Ahab’s wife after the white whale has dragged the obsessed whaler to the briny deep at the end of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. And in this case, the story is told with movement and dance and voice-overs, with no dialogue from the characters. It’s dreamlike, expressionistic, and poetic, with seagulls and wind spirits, dance and puppetry and music, and of course, the whale.

The Journey follows Mrs. Ahab’s voyage under the sea to confront the whale for taking her husband. “She has to go through the belly of the beast to find out who she is as a person,” says director Cassell, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of movement. “It’s about embracing our fear, overcoming obstacles, and celebrating the tenacity of the human spirit.”

The first production under the banner of the new InMotion Theatre, The Journey plays at the Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre April 19 to 22, presented by the School of Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance.

Cassell says he and Jim Petosa, a CFA professor of directing and dramatic criticism and School of Theatre director, created InMotion Theatre to focus on storytelling “primarily through the language of movement and physical acting.” They plan to produce one performance in the fourth quarter of each academic year. “To me, movement is an expressive channel for our inner thoughts and imagination,” Cassell says. “Everything we do in life is movement, and InMotion is to celebrate that.”

For this production, he says, he developed an idea that first came to him in the early 1990s, after he saw a Laurie Anderson performance piece on Moby Dick and read the novel Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

Characters express themselves mainly through movement

Characters express themselves mainly through movement in this production: the Seagull, played by Nicholas Walker (CFA’20), and Celeste Dawn, played by Dana Depirri (CFA’20).

“I was inspired by the one passage in Moby Dick about Ahab’s wife,” Cassell says. “What was her story? She changed him a little bit, accessing his vulnerability, in a way the rest of the novel doesn’t quite capture.”

Even the show’s credits are a little unusual. The Journey was conceived, cocreated, and directed by Cassell and cocreated and written by theater education graduate student Corianna Moffatt (CFA’10,’19), with script  contributions and dramaturgy by Georgia Zildjian (CFA’13,’19).

“I had all of these ideas, all of this imagery, all of these inspirations, but I was interested in having someone to write the script from which we could develop the movement and the imagery,” Cassell says. His assistant director, Jeremy Ohringer (CFA’19), recommended Moffatt. They got together last August, he gave her a rough template for what he had in mind, and she began to turn it into a narrative roadmap.

“It’s focusing on this woman’s experience with grief, how grief changes her through her life, and how she comes back to herself out of trauma,” Moffatt says. “It really builds on the strong relationships she’s had with other women in her life, particularly her mother and her daughter. And then there’s a whale.”

Moffatt brought in Zildjian particularly for research into the period. “We became quite informed by her fascination with whales and what whales can do and the weight of whales and the New England–New Bedford spirit of the 1800s,” Cassell says.

Mrs. Ahab is called Celeste, and she appears at three different ages, Celeste Dawn, played by Dana Depirri (CFA’20), Celeste Noon, Elena Morris (CFA’18), and Celeste Dusk, Paula Langton (CFA’03), a CFA associate professor of voice and speech and program head of acting.

In the video above, watch scenes from a rehearsal of The Journey, InMotion Theatre’s debut production, running at the Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre through April 22. Video By Devin Hahn

“One of the fascinating things about it is the transfer from page to body,” Langton says. “I went from kind of looking at the script and going, uh, I don’t know, does this even make sense? And then as soon as I’m up and doing it: oh, never mind, it makes total sense. There are all sorts of things going on besides understanding in a prefrontal cortex kind of way. It’s fascinating; it’s a classic hero’s journey.”

Mark Cohen, a CFA assistant professor of acting, plays one of three versions of Moby Dick, which range from a leviathan among the stars to a phantom shadow falling across the stage to Cohen himself.

“In the beginning, we show the myth of the whale, that he was a horror and a monster, so his shadow appears rather large,” Cassell says. “But what I wanted to show to the audience is that he only did this because he was provoked. That’s when Celeste begins to change a little bit, when she learns about the story through his eyes.”

metaphorical flight

In this scene, Walker as the Seagull leads the other characters on a metaphorical flight.

The Journey incorporates carefully designed choreography and also passages where the performers come up with their own movements. Movement direction is credited to Cassell, in partnership with the cast and Ohringer.

One more unusual angle: Cassell has partnered with Won Ju Lim, a CFA assistant professor of art and sculpture, whose installation class is creating an environment the audience will pass through on the way into the theater.

InMotion Theatre: The Journey, presented by the Boston Center for American Performance, Thursday, April 19, 7:30 pm; Friday, April 20, 8 pm. (with postshow discussion); Saturday, April 21, 2 and 8 pm; Sunday, April 22, 2 pm. Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 BU alumni, $7.50 with CFA membership, available here; free with BU ID, at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability.

15 Comments
Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

15 Comments on Mrs. Ahab Meets the Whale

  • BUPatron on 04.19.2018 at 8:10 am

    Wow wow wow, I am so excited to see what I know will be a magical and moving production, clearly indicative in the video excerpt as well. Professor Cassell is taking SOT to another level with finally illustrating what movement is. Movement is not just steps, not just about form but about translating emotions, inner thoughts and expression in a visceral and transparent way. Bravo SOT for having the courage to develop and produce InMotion Theatre and Bravo to Professor Cassell for his inspired and fearless work. My friend attended a performance on Tuesday evening and said it was dynamic and brilliant.

  • Funder on 04.19.2018 at 8:31 am

    I saw this production on Tuesday night and it was hands down, one of the best productions I have seen in a long time in and out of BU -truly accessible yet artistic, poetic and dreamlike. I was hesitant walking in thinking I may not get it since it is entirely told through movement but was blown away with how clear it was and most importantly, what feelings rises up in me as I was watching. RUN to go see it!! About time SOT did something large scale too to match the grandeur of the fantastic new theatre. Everyone is at the top of their game here–the movement direction, design and creative team and the cast–the students shine so brightly here along with amazing faculty members. I literally thought they were all movement majors. Get there early to capture the whole experience!

  • Kevintheatrefan on 04.19.2018 at 10:02 am

    Professor Cassell is a gift to the BU community and to life in general–his unapologetic embracement of generosity and spirit, so beautifully expressed in his work, is a tremendous asset to all who have the honor of knowing him.

  • Paul D Morris on 04.19.2018 at 11:34 am

    Exquisite. In my long life, I have never seen anything approaching this. To tell a story with movement alone is something beyond my experience. Heartfelt congratulations all. This is truly an amazing adventure.

  • Matthew Jacobs on 04.19.2018 at 1:01 pm

    Stunning, beautiful, magical, moving, transformative–typical of Mr. Cassell’s work. His brilliance is totally not appreciated enough. Bravo to BU, SOT for supporting this adventurous and exquisite piece of storytelling.

  • Jillian Rivas on 04.20.2018 at 7:44 am

    Saw last night’s preview performance and all I can say is that I am completely stunned–what a beautiful and moving experience–RUN to go see it! What a tremendous show it is!

  • Ken Tosti on 04.20.2018 at 4:40 pm

    Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant–LOVED EVERY Minute of this dynamic show–so moving, so beautiful, so transporting. From the opening pre-show image, I was hooked. WOW!

  • Janelle Rodriquez on 04.22.2018 at 10:53 am

    Saw this show last night and it transformed me from the very beginning. LOVED it, LOVED it—congratulations to the entire creative and cast team, purely brilliant.

    Professor Cassell breaks ground with the debut of InMotion Theatre and so thrilling to see SOT take this adventurous step forward.

  • Theatre Fan on 04.23.2018 at 8:06 am

    What a tremendous experience this way–Saw the last show yesterday and was blown away. Why did this not run for a two weeks?????? Why only for one weekend? What a shame as this production should have been embraced by everyone who has a heart. Congratulations to the entire team but especially to Professor Cassell for initiating InMotion Theatre and having the bold and creative mind to conceive this brilliant production.

  • Michelle Tang on 04.23.2018 at 9:02 am

    YES!! This show should have ran longer–hopefully next year’s InMotion production will do so–I cannot wait to buy my tickets!

  • Michael Rancin on 04.24.2018 at 10:51 am

    Saw this show on Saturday night and still to this moment, thinking about it–the powerful images, the story, the movement, the feelings. What a tremendous production, BRAVO to the entire team and how thankful we are to have Professor Cassell at BU.

  • Linda Fran on 04.30.2018 at 7:02 am

    Bravo to BU for producing this tremendous production–what a thrilling opportunity for the students to experience what it means to work on something that is larger in scale–get them use to that earlier than later. Professor Cassell is simply magical and truly collaborative–how he galvanizes everyone to believe in their own power is simply special–from different schools (visual arts), from faculty, from students, from the crew and especially from the power of the audience to trust that they will interpret movement just fine. When I saw the production, I have never seen anything, especially through movement, executed so clearly and transparently. Professor and Director of the year!!

  • Maria Alvarez on 05.21.2018 at 7:47 am

    Beautiful–stunning profile and video. I loved the production at the Booth Theatre–so full of heart and humanity. I was blown away with not only the craftsmanship and direction of the play but with the performances as well.

  • Matthew Santos on 06.06.2018 at 8:07 am

    Wonderful article of a wonderful visionary–I had the tremendous pleasure of witnessing The Journey at The beautiful new Joan and Edgar Booth theatre and left in tears. One of the best productions in and out of BU I saw in years that perfectly fused training, expression and performance within one medium.

  • ArtsFanatic on 07.06.2018 at 8:48 am

    Wow, how did I miss this?
    Stunning, moving and beautiful–loved the video and article. We need more art like this that highlights community and the meaning of relationships in this world we live in that tends to glorify how to separate people. This work glorifies how people can connect.
    Wonderful.

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