David Quicksall's "Moby-Dick, or The Whale" — an impressive adaptation of the complex American tale for Book-It Repertory Theatre — somehow translates the book's wave-drenched action scenes into gripping live drama. It plays at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, through March 8.

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On a small stage in a cozy Seattle Center theater, a crew of harpooners and mates are setting off on the high seas in search of a notorious great white whale.

They may not get the best of that fearsome creature. But they do manage, with uncanny success, to plunge us right into the belly of the beast of Herman Melville’s famed novel.

David Quicksall’s “Moby-Dick, or The Whale” — an impressive adaptation of this complex American tale for Book-It Repertory Theatre — somehow translates the book’s wave-drenched action scenes into gripping live drama.

At the same time, Quicksall and his intrepid acting crew bring to the surface other aspects of “Moby-Dick,” those layers of metaphysical, spiritual and mercantile rumination that make it such a dense, reverberant American epic.

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The play’s first half belongs mainly to the book’s young sailor narrator, Ishmael (movingly played by David Hogan), who brings us along on his own voyage of discovery, with all its wonders and terrors.

In short scenes that unfurl like a swift schooner’s sails, we tag along with Ishmael and his “exotic” new friend, the South Sea Islands harpooner Queequeg (Ryan Fields), on a whaling expedition aboard the not-so-good ship Pequod.

The two men are warned, after a fashion, about the boat’s skipper, Captain Ahab (Wesley Rice), a brooding old salt obsessed with exacting revenge on the mighty Moby-Dick — the ferocious whale that tore off his leg on a prior journey.

The primal battle between man and giant “fish” is fully waged here, in choreographed passages that express all the horror and excitement — but not a droplet of seawater or blood in evidence, and there’s only an abstract representation of Ahab’s adversary.

Quicksall has filleted Melville’s plot neatly. Moreover, he retains enough of the text’s many Shakespearean and biblical allusions, and some of its more interesting digressions.

We get a crash course in the many products whales provided in the early 19th century (the most valuable being oil for lamps, later to be supplanted by kerosene).

The central relationships are well limned, particularly those between Hogan’s sonorous-voiced and thoughtful Ishmael and Fields’ imposing Queequeg, and between excellent Jim Gall’s principled, wary first mate Starbuck and Rice’s increasingly unhinged Ahab.

The ensemble playing is generally exemplary, as the men sing and work and worry together. But Rice’s performance as Ahab misses the mark.

In his quieter scenes of moody intensity, this Book-It veteran comes through well. What’s missing is a sense of blood-chilling enigma that can make the seafaring Lear a source of both terror and mystery. Rice’s high-pitched voice works against him there, as does his tendency to mug through Ahab’s eruptions of madness.

That’s unfortunate. But the show is strong enough to compensate for such lapses.

In addition to the palpable esprit de corps of the all-male acting company (which also includes Eric Ray Anderson and Corey McDaniel, among others), Book-It’s “Moby-Dick” boasts some uncanny staging effects.

Ben Zamora’s lighting scheme makes seamless use of shadow-play and the warm, amber light of quarters down below, of the gathering gloom of a storm and the blazing-white horizon during a whale sighting.

Deanne Middleton’s costuming befits the nautical period. Edward K. Ross’ set is basic but serviceable. And the sound score of singalong sea chanteys and original music (by Nathan Wade) is a strong atmospheric.

No 2-½-hour play could completely encompass Melville’s 700-plus-page “Moby-Dick.” But this one distills what’s best in the book into powerful theater.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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