Stepping inside the doors of Lookingglass Theatre, the first thing theatergoers see is the maze of pipes at the core of the Water Tower Water Works that pump 250,000 gallons daily to the city’s North Side. So it’s fitting that several of the company’s adaptations have been set in and around water — the world’s vast oceans to be exact.
The company’s penchant for adapting classic novels has provided plenty of adventurous inspiration in this vein. First there was a breathtaking staging of “Moby Dick” followed by a rollicking “Treasure Island.” Now playwright/director David Kersnar has set his sights on “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas,” French novelist Jules Verne’s epic tale of underwater adventure.
‘20,000 Leagues Under the Seas’ When: To Aug. 19 Where: Lookingglass Theatre, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Tickets: $45-$80 Info: lookingglasstheatre.org
While Kersnar is a longtime fan of the 1954 Disney film, it wasn’t until he reread an unabridged copy of Verne’s novel that the story was reborn for him in a new light.
“There’s something meditative about it,” says Kersnar, who began working on the project in 2011. “Verne just lists species after species after species. There’s this whole world that humans are separated from, and this idea of being amongst the unknown became very exciting for me.”
Co-adapted by Kersnar and Steve Pickering (writing under the pen name Althos Low), the story revolves around Professor Morgan Arronnax (Kasey Foster), a scientist who along with fellow explorers goes in search of a sea monster and is taken captive by Captain Nemo (Kareem Bandealy) aboard the Victorian submarine Nautilus. In the murky depths of the sea, they encounter giant squids and otherworldly sea creatures while also confronting man’s responsibilities to Earth and to one another.
It’s a setup for a grand stage adventure. However, Kersnar adds, those who have only read an abridged version of the book or only seen the Disney film haven’t really gotten below the surface of what Verne was trying to create. “The socio-political themes are not present in these,” he notes.
Adds Pickering: “Verne was sort of like Graham Greens in that he was always interested in the world’s hot spots and finding ways to use those in his fiction. However, his editor didn’t always agree with his choices.”
In the original French text, Nemo was a Polish nobleman avenging his family members who were killed by the Russians during the aforementioned uprising. Verne’s editor insisted he change Nemo to a more mysterious, unknown background.
It was Pickering who informed Kersnar that Nemo, now nearing the end of his life, appears in Verne’s “Mysterious Island,” a sequel to “20,000 Leagues,” where his back-story is revealed, a fact that proved to be the adaptors’ way into the story. (Nemo is an Indian prince who fought against Indian oppressors and whose family was destroyed in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.)
“The back story really spoke to the here and now. We really wanted to restore the social justice that Verne was speaking to over 150 years ago,” Kersnar recalls. “At its heart this is a very human story about someone who feels that he had to make choices based on traumas in his life and based on his desire to help those he saw as the downtrodden. Now he’s asking the question ‘Did I cause more harm than good?’”
Lookingglass’ “20,000 Leagues” also features many surprising visual elements, something that Lookingglass audiences have come to expect in this type of action-filled production.
“David approaches it in exactly the right way,” Pickering says adding with a laugh, “Let’s not do what everybody expects us to do. Let’s get as far away from that as we can.”
The action includes physical elements (circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi) and chain and rope rigging (mastered by Isaac Schoepp) for several stage surprises.
“We are lifting the heaviest and largest object in Lookingglass history,” Kersnar says mysteriously refusing to give anything away. “I think the fact that it’s happening in our little theater is just brilliant.”
The set design features puppets created by Blair Thomas, Tom Lee and Chris Wooten and costumes by Sully Ratke including some otherworldly undersea diving suits.
“I was interested in creating these strange sea creatures that move slowly in the water world,” Ratke says. “With glowing lights on their chests and masks, we distort the proportion, tall heads, long necks.”
Kersnar allowed his design team to “turn it up to full blast,” which turned the creative process into an exciting challenge, says Ratke.
“It’s been an adventure for all of us,” she says. “Much of the time all the designers were in the room at the same time which doesn’t usually happen. There’s a cohesion here that’s really exciting. It feels like we’re uncovering pirate’s treasure at the bottom of the sea.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.