The charming curio Whales, created and directed by Hit the Lights! Theater Company and playing at the PIT, is a scruffy-punkish sixty-minute shadow-puppet sing-along unclassifiable, more a hard-boozing playdate or thought experiment than a narrative. We could think of it as a low-tech, drunkass, chantey-rich, rock ’n’ roll seminar on the topic of what once was known as the “Illumination Industry” — whaling, that impossibly brutal and deadly work that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yielded the spermaceti from which was made the candles that lit up the parlors of the well-to-do.
Whales urges us to consider the horror it took to keep our forebears from sitting around in the dark. Seamen could harvest a couple of tons of spermaceti — which, seriously, was not sperm — from the nasal passages of a single sperm whale; between 1835 and 1872, according to Save the Whales, Americans killed almost 300,000 sperm whales. As is noted in the show, this process literally involved the smallest crew members spelunking into dead whales’ skulls to scoop the spermaceti out.
Some of Whales plays like boozy, swearing children’s theater for grown-ups. In playful and engaging crowd-interaction sequences, the cast enlists audience members to playact the life of whalers. The ethos of Hit the Lights! is collaborative and communitarian — if you get dragooned into participating you will be toasted rather than humiliated. (They’re also too Midwestern-nice to leave anyone feeling bad.) Theatergoers get tasked with rowing out toward one of these magnificent beasts, screaming out a battle cry, and then quite lustily stabbing a harpoon that I expect the crew has to repair after most shows. Later, volunteers run a rope up and down the steps of the PIT’s Striker theater, and then across the extent of the front rows, to suggest the length and width of the sperm whale that in 1820 smashed the Essex and inspired Herman Melville. Lined up on the stage space and assigned key roles in the hierarchy of a hypothetical nineteenth-century New York–based whaling ship, audience members toss oversize dice to determine a journey’s length, success, profitability, and deadliness — some are gonna die, and the crew won’t see much reward for its years of maritime slaughter. (Someone backstage runs the financials in real time.)
The economics of whaling stir terrific feeling from a cast of musicians, puppeteers, and presenters, who take turns leading the audience in song or demonstrating, through clever prop work, the harsh toll of this work on all the involved mammals, man and whale alike. The whales had it worse, of course. Their perspective is suggested by Hit the Lights!’s deft and inventive puppetry. Projected silhouettes of whales and ships glide across a screen center stage, often over a projected backdrop of undulating netting. That’s the sea, of course, but it is a net, and it’s always clear that the brokeass seamen doing the killing are themselves caught up in something bigger than them.
The show opens with lyric, lovely shadow play that, on the screen, becomes a sort of performed animation: Whales plunge the deep; vessels stalk them; the sea heaves. Later we’ll see a puppet crew in silhouette, led by a peg-legged Ahab, whose obsessive hunt for the greatest of whales is suggested in an impressive live-action montage of the days passing. The band can stomp like the Mekons but also soaks us in seascapes of ambient guitar atop which its violin player teases out elusive folk melodies. I marveled at splashes of blood in the water, at a live actor sharing scenes with the puppets, and at moments of handmade majesty, the work of a restless company updating the nimble candle and lantern play that sailors might have amused themselves with in the hulls of these ships. The Illumination Industry’s a lot less terrible than it used to be.