There is nothing worse than nothing where once there was something.

That's a sentiment echoed throughout Juli Crockett's Or, The Whale, a melodic, entrancing and downright bizarre interpretation of Moby Dick from Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble that is a kick in the emotional gut.

Simply put, it's a story about a man who lost his leg. But as everyone who supposedly read Moby Dick knows, there is more behind Ahab's maniacal quest than revenge. In a meditation on loss and the desperate search to become whole, Or, The Whale is in turns poignant, humorous and strange.

Four performers play four versions of Captain Ahab, each with a leg painted ivory that clicks with every step, and huge sheets of silver covering the walls shimmer like water. Cabin boy Pip (Amber Whitehall) tumbles around the stage, whispering insights and singing sea shanties while the Ahabs lament their loss in dueling monologues and the disembodied voice of The Deep (Paige McKinney in a vintage diver's helmet) reverberates, tinged with the dispassionate menace of HAL 9000.

photo from PETE
photo from PETE

Crafted more as an epic poem than a traditional play, the language itself gives this story its structure. Dialogue is shouted, whispered and sung, with the musicality of the words often surpassing their meaning. Crockett describes the structure as a balancing act—don't let the words spoil the music, nor the sounds engulf the script. The four Ahabs (Jacob Coleman, Rebecca Lingafelter, Cristi Miles and Maureen Porter) handle this challenge deftly, infusing their rants with boiling rage and fathomless despair.

It's rare to find a playful existential quest, one that digs deeply but doesn't take itself too seriously. But Crockett's manipulation of language in the hands of an enthusiastic cast becomes a joyful journey into the mind of a madman, and ourselves. When the three-person soliloquy on "The Rule of Finding and Forgetting" hits the stage, depending on how much weed you've just smoked, it will probably blow your mind.

see it: Or, The Whale is at Diver Studio Theater at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, Jan. 9-23. Jan. 21-23 performances are part of Fertile Ground. $25.

Photo from PETE
Photo from PETE