French author Jules Verne’s farsighted (1870) Nautilus submarine takes readers on a voyage below the oceans’ surface where Captain Nemo encounters sea creatures and destroys ships in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World.” BTW twenty thousand depicts the journey’s length not ocean depth.
Disney productions saw wonderful, pictorial possibilities so came out with a fine adventure film in 1954 that starred Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre.
Now Lookinglass Theatre, known for creatively depicting such stories enjoyed by youngsters and adults, alike, as “Alice” from Lewis Carroll’s stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” has brought the Verne adventure to life on stage with David Kersnar and Althos Low’s adaption and Kersnar’s direction in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.” (Yes, the play says Seas).
Perceptively interpreted to show Nemo’s righteous and abhorrent sides, the adaptation stresses how he justifies his murderous attacks on ships in the cause of freedom but it ends with his explanation that he is the son of an Indian rajah who hated British rule. He says that when he led the Indian Mutiny he was repaid for his rebellion with the death of his wife and children.
Nemo is convincingly played by Kareem Bandealy. However, how audiences view him throughout the play is through the magnificent portrayal of French Professor Morgan Aronnax by Kasey Foster.
Supposedly a male scientist in the book, Kersnar and Low present the professor as a female who wants to keep her gender a secret because women were seldom acknowledged for their brains and skills in her time.
She is ably assisted by Lanise Antoine Shelley as Brigette Conseil. A third member of the group that ends up on the Nautilus is Walter Briggs who is excellent as Canadian harpooner Ned Land. The three of them start out on a U.S. Navy war ship whose mission is to find the green monster that has been destroying boats on the high seas.
When the Nautilus sinks their ship and they are battling the ocean, they seek refuge through the “monster’s” hatch and meet Nemo.
Another group that puts the action into perspective at the start, middle and end of the show is a handful of Civil War Union soldiers. They supposedly had an unlikely escape from their rebel captors by balloon but drifted way off course to be beached on the island where Nemo had moored in an underground lake.
The audiences experience the professor’s visit as Nemo’s relates the story to the Union soldiers led by Cyrus Smith (Edwin Lee Gibson) who also plays Constable Weaver and an engineer. They tell Nemo that the professor did not relate all of his problems in a book they read . Nemo also does not reveal that the professor in his story is female.
The cast is excellent but what really ups the story-telling level is Todd Rosenthal’s remarkable set, Christine Binder’s atmospheric lighting, the fish and giant squid by puppet designers Blair Thomas, Tom Lee and Chris Wooten, Sully Ratke’s costumes, the swimming motions of the cast and their agile rope maneuvers.
When I attended Thursday’s matinee it appeared that set malfunctions reported earlier had been resolved and that the actors fit very comfortably in their demanding roles.
DETAILS: 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is at Lookingglass Theatre, in the Chicago Water Works at 21 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, through Aug. 19,2018. Running time: 2 hrs., 20 minutes. For tickets and more information call (312) 337-0665 or visit Lookingglass.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago