20,000 Leagues Under the Seas
At the Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Lookingglass Theatre Company takes on a huge challenge in adapting the popular Jules Verne science fiction novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (revised to “Seas” by the company). This is the story about the obsessed Captain Nemo and his fantastical giant submarine, the Nautilus.
The Lookingglass demonstrated its skill at handling classics of the oceans in its version of “Moby Dick.” But the Verne tale has special demands in trying to evoke life miles under the surface of the ocean, along with plenty of philosophizing about the environment, ecology, and the evils of imperialism. The adaptation by David Kersnar and Althos Low (Steve Pickering) embellishes the narrative with borrowings from another Verne fantasy adventure novels, “The Mysterious Island.”
At the beginning of the story, Western countries are being terrorized by a mysterious giant sea monster that is preying shipping on the world’s seas, especially British ships. To locate the monster, an expedition has been launched, led by a French scientist named Morgan Aronnax, radically and successfully played as a woman in the Lookingglass staging. The professor and her companion Brigette Conseil, joined by harpoonist Ned Land, a rough and tumble lad from Canada.
In due course the expedition ship is attacked by the monster, which of course is the submarine Nautilus. All the other members of the expedition are conveniently lost at sea and the two women and Ned Land are taken prisoners by Captain Nemo. The story understandably sidesteps exactly how Nemo built this wondrous vessel, which includes a library with thousands of books, a walnut-paneled dining room, and a drawing room filled with masterpieces of painting, tapestries, and sculpture.
“20,000 Leagues” is told as a flashback. The play’s first 45 minutes are consumed largely in talk that establishes the identity of the various major characters. The show then becomes a kind of below-the-waves travelogue as the prisoners observe the rich variety of sea life that thrives underwater far from civilization. The Lookingglass production is filled with the kind of visual imagination that makes this company such a civic treasure. Puppet designers Blair Thomas, Tom Lee, and Chris Wooten have created all manner of undersea critters, from weird-looking fish to giant spiders they manipulate on and around the stage. The tentacle of a giant squid whips out suddenly, generating squeals of surprise from the audience. Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi has choreographed aerial scenes like a rope-suspended character hunting pearls on the bottom of the sea. Professor Aronnax and her colleagues watch the fauna of the deep swim by through portals in a screen at one end of the stage.
The storytelling tensions center on the conflict between Nemo and his three captives. Gradually Aronnax falls under the spell of the deep and the scientific wonders she sees and appears content to spend her life observing and researching while Ned Land churns in frustration to leave the Nautilus and return to the world he knows.
Eventually the flashback concludes and a now aged Nemo delivers a very long monologue that explains why he has become a kind of maritime outlaw and why he hates Great Britain. We now learn that Captain Nemo is actually a prince from India whose wife and children were killed by the British colonials. Since then Nemo has been consumed by revenge, taking out his hatred on all British ships. It’s a story of a man on a mission to destroy the forces that took his family. The speech stops the play’s action cold with its excessive verbalizing and the spectator may ponder whether Nemo died of natural causes or talked himself to death.
The play scores points for its stimulating exchanges between Nemo and Aronnax in which the captain eloquent justifies his depredations against the hated Western world. Shifting Aronnax’s gender tweaks the sexism of that time, and implicitly the sexism of today. Kareem Bandealy and Kasey Foster elevate the production with their intelligence, though I would have been happy to take Aronnax’s French accent on faith. Nemo isn’t lumbered with an Indian accent and the audience is all the more comfortable for it.
The remainder of the ensemble is first rate, most actors. playing multiple roles. Lanise Antoine Shelley is excellent as Aronnax’s sensible companion Brigette and Walter Briggs lends an agreeable cocky flair to the role of Ned Land, prince of harpooners. The versatile cast is creditably filled out by Thomas J. Cox, Joe Dempsey, Micah Figueroa, Edwin Lee Gibson, and Glenn-Dale Obrero.
Director Kersnar uses all the theater, aisles and stage and hydraulic lift to give the show a sense f movement, but the play remain s talky, especially the first 45 minutes and Nemo’s final speech. Still, the puppetry is a hoot in the middle portion of the story and Sully Ratke has created a wardrobe full of authentic period costumes. Christine Binder has designed the atmospheric lighting, and Rick Sims the sound plan. Isaac Schoepp repeats his success with “Moby Dick” as the rigging designed for “20,000 Leagues.”
Lookingglass is touting this production as a family show and there will be much for youngsters to enjoy in the puppetry and earliest work. But the adaptation has not totally solved the demands of transferring a vehicle best suited to the printed page and to movies and television to the live stage. The technology is impressively utilized and the acting is outstanding, but viewers especially young people, looking for a slam-bag adventure tale may have their attention span tested. It might be prudent for younger attendees to read one of the many editions of the novel directed toward youngsters before visiting the production.
The show gets a rating of
“20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” runs through August 19 at the Lookingglass Theatre inside the Water Tower Water Works, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $80. Call 312 337 0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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