20,000 Leagues Under the Seas Adapts the Classic Tale for the Lookingglass Stage

LTC_20K_7299_Artistic Associate Walter Briggs, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Artistic Associate Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.jpg
Walter Briggs and Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Professor Arronax (Kasey Foster), expert of all things oceanic, has been brought aboard a US Naval Vessel to aide in the search for an elusive killer of ships– is it man made, or is it an undiscovered monster of the sea? The United States has used submarine-type ships in combat, and other nations have managed to construct similar marvels, but the accounts of this leviathan are far beyond anything conceivable in 1870. This stalker of shores slips in and out of sight, shows up only to destroy, and, with other-worldly green lights, plunges back to the depths from whence it came. As fate would have it, Arronax and crew come face to face with the beast, and when the naval ship is outgunned and destroyed, the professor is one of only three survivors, along with her companion Brigette (Lanise Antoine Shelley) and Ned Land (Walter Briggs), a cocksure harpooner from Canada. They are brought aboard what is revealed to be the Nautilus, an unfathomably advanced sea craft, and from here the classic tale of tentacles and trenches sets sail, Lookingglass Theatre-style.

Cleverly, adapter/director David Kersnar transposes a bit of Jules Verne’s own Around the World in 80 Days for a framing device—a group of American Civil War prisoners escape their captors in a wayward hot air balloon and crash land at the feet of Captain Nemo’s (Kareem Bandealy) beached Nautilus. The novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is the actual account by which Arronax has been made famous worldwide. The professor’s narration allows for a deep dive into the past; in the present an aged Nemo serves as a fatalistic reminder of where the story will end.

On the Nautilus, a dichotomy of ideals drives the action: professor Arronax is at once in awe of Nemo and terrified of him. As a taxonomist and purveyor of the depths, the Captain’s knowledge is second to none, and Arronax serves to collect limitless specimens for her continued research. But between the moments of tranquility, Nemo reveals how detached his reality has become. He sees himself as the Robin Hood of the seas, using gold from shipwrecks to fund a massive global revolt against the tyranny of man. The sea is Utopia incarnate, where true equity is not only possible but implicit. No oppressors. No oppressed. Just limitless opportunity. But Nemo is blind to the tyranny he has imposed underwater. In swearing off humanity he has all but denied his own. The free peoples of the world now fear him as he patrols the ocean and kills indiscriminately.  Amazingly here, Verne anticipates large scale global conflict half a century before any Great War; the true scope of the story remains massive, even by today’s standards, and serves to anchor Arronax’s dilemma with great urgency.

But for all its daring thematic pondering, this Lookingglass premiere finds itself glacial when it should be full steam ahead. During moments of awe we are too often witness to their backstage machinations; whether it’s a stage hand awkwardly setting a prop, or a transition being telegraphed a moment before it actually happens. The high wire acts that have become a company mainstay are merely impressive, not immersive. They feel too safe. The audience is always aware of the actors getting into place for such stunts– kudos to the team for making sure the performers are never in harm’s way, but these moments effectively lack the oomph that would make this show truly spectacular. Even the first act’s big fight scene feels pillowed; it’s a strangely silent affair, no soundscape or music, just the grunts from the performers and dull thuds of timid contact. 20,000 Leagues is a salty, muscular story that should leave you practically seasick– instead this piece is often treading water.

In Disney’s film adaptation, Kirk Douglas’ Ned Land sings “Got a whale of a tale I’ll tell ya lads, a whale of a tale or two! Bout the flappin’ fish and the girls I love, on nights like this with the moon above, I swear by my tattoo!” Here he’s played with swashbuckle and panache by Briggs, a Lookingglass regular. As for the famous squid attack, a tentacle bursts into the scene and unfurls with such bluster that the audience collectively jumped the night I attended. And Todd Rosenthal’s set has a massive reveal at the top of the show, a moment which seems to recall the famous chandelier crescendo from The Phantom of the Opera. There’s a swagger to these performances that the rest of 20,000 Leagues is altogether lacking. Too often we’re left with a repetitive Morality Play aboard the Nautilus, Nemo’s chariot turned tomb. And though the melodrama serves well to sketch out the story of a man consumed by the very thing he fought to destroy, there’s not enough wind in the sails to keep this high seas adventure story afloat.

20,000 Leagues Under the Seas has been extended through September 9 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. in the old Water Tower. The show runs 2.25 hours with one intermission. Tickets are $45-80 for performances Tuesday-Sunday.

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Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

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