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‘20,000 Leagues Under the Seas’ goes beneath the surface on Nemo’s morality

Walter Briggs (from left), Kasey Foster and Lanise Antoine Shelley in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas."

Walter Briggs (from left), Kasey Foster and Lanise Antoine Shelley in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas." | Liz Lauren

The most famous scene in Jules Verne’s 19th-century sci-fi adventure novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” involves an attack of giant squid on our protagonists’ submarine. I thought of that scene a few times during this enticing, sometimes spectacular but thematically overburdened Lookingglass Theatre adaptation, not just because of the anticipation of how this ever-clever troupe would stage it — which it does very well — but because it seems an apt metaphor for trying to adapt this sprawling epic in the first place.

It’s not just depicting sea creatures. Adaptors David Kersnar and Althos Low (a pen name for Steve Pickering and his adaptation development group) wrestle with everything from the title (is it “Under the Sea” or “Under the Seas”?) to the problematic nature of an all-male cast (they change two of the lead characters to women, which works exceptionally well), to the fact that “20,000 Leagues” has a sequel called “The Mysterious Island” (they turn that into a frame for this story, which creates all sorts of other issues to wrestle with, such as exactly which story they’re trying to tell), to the nature of the great, complex megalomaniac Captain Nemo (Kareem Bandealy), who has built this ultra-advanced submarine for reasons of both scientific exploration and vengeance.

That last issue actually becomes the almost exclusive thematic driver of this version.  By conflating the original tale (in which the details of Nemo’s background and motivation were left vague) and sequel (where all was revealed), this show seeks to answer the question of whether Nemo is heroic or monstrous. This transforms the story from being one about Professor Morgan Aronnax (Kasey Foster) to one about Nemo.

“20,000 Leagues Under the Seas”
★★★

When: To Aug. 19
Where:  Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan
Tickets: $45-$80
Info:  lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time:  2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Aronnax is a marine expert and famed writer (in this version, a woman writing as a man a la George Sand, which generates its own intriguing tensions) who joins an expedition seeking to find out what has been destroying ships on the open seas.  Once they find it and lose the battle, she becomes a prisoner on Nemo’s massive submarine, along with her erstwhile aide Brigette Conseil (Lanise Antoine Shelley) and the harpooner Ned Land (Walter Briggs).  Caught up in the wonders of the marine world she can suddenly see up close, Aronnax loses, and then regains, a desire to escape.

It’s as if a hundred years from now someone wanted to redo the original “Star Wars,” and decided to focus on Darth Vader’s history from the start, rather than just telling us a focused tale of young adult Luke Skywalker and his adventures.  It’s a good story, or stories.  It’s just weighed down trying to do too much, and loses sight of the original appeal of what made the whole thing a hit in the first place.  Hint: It wasn’t because it appreciated the evils of imperialism, although it acknowledged them.

It’s when the show wrestles with the more immediate requirements of theatrical creativity that it is most satisfying.  When people first climb into the submarine from above, the center of the thrust stage in Todd Rosenthal’s oft-ingenious set design starts to rise.  We get the sense that we are descending into the submerged part of the vehicle, dubbed Nautilus.

So finally, back to that squid attack, which does turn out to be a pretty terrific sequence. We see a giant eye peeking in through one of the observation windows, followed by loud sounds of trauma to the Nautilus, with sound designer Rick Sims evoking echoing reverberations of metal.  And then, the attack itself, which here focuses on an individual giant tentacle, in a complex and impressive bit of oversized puppetry (from Blair Thomas, Tom Lee and Chris Wooten) battling Conseil, with the help of circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasio.

The scene itself is fun, filled with a sense of adventure combined with whimsy, and a worthy display of sheer creativity.  It’s very pleasurable to see Kersnar and his design and movement team do battle with Verne’s imagination.  Unfortunately, a scene with a pearl diver had a technical problem at the press performance, which required the excising of the sequence.  Still, what would they do with a walk on the ocean floor, or the visit to Atlantis, or the great Maelstom (or whirlpool of doom)?  Alas, those scenes are simply narrated, tossed overboard to enable the focus on Nemo and the unresolvable quandary of his morality.

In the end, this show feels like a good start with great bits, that needs above all a more consistent sense of wonder and excitement about the still-unknown marine world.  More depiction of the physical Maelstrom, please, and less focus on the moral one.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.