Chicago Theater Review: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEAS (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 3, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t keep a bad man down. Especially when he’s Captain Nemo, the scourge of the sea. Returning to the watery roots of Moby Dick, Lookingglass Theatre Company launches 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. This 140-minute adventure on the low seas navigates the psyche of a world-wide terrorist in a killer submarine. Adapted by Althos Lo and director David Kersnar from the 1870 sci-fi novel (“a tour of the underwater world”) by Jules Verne, it’s best known for the 1954 Disney movie starring Kirk Douglas and a very scary giant squid.

With its gewgaw-festooned proscenium, elaborate ship’s rigging, huge trap door/platform on a hydraulic lift, and puppets depicting undersea creatures (including a huge tentacle from the aforementioned cephalopod), this is vintage Lookingglass territory. It’s ripe for a creative conquest. What you see is enough to get. Almost.

Told in two “back stories” across two acts, this is solid escapism, worthy of the author of its 1874 sequel The Mysterious Island, as well as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days — all which made wonderful films. (Interestingly, the title refers to the distance covered across the seven seas; it could hardly refer to the submersible’s descent.)

It spins the cruel and fairly unedifying saga of a rogue mass murderer. A sociopathic protector of the world’s underdogs and oppressed, Nemo has turned his self-made submarine The Nautilus into a movable nemesis. Killing hundreds over three decades, Nemo, the stubborn descendant of rajahs, has more than avenged his family, executed during the Great Mutiny of 1857 (a failed Indian rebellion against British imperialism).

Nemo’s slaughter spree is witnessed twice across 16 years, first in sequence by a naval search party of former Confederate prisoners from the U.S. Bainbridge: They capture and interrogate Nemo before his fateful end.

But his original discoverers — seeking a sea monster that has ravaged the world’s maritime trade — were French and Canadian. Here portrayed as female to advance feminist talking points, these explorers are marine biologist Professor Morgan Aronnax (Kasey Foster) and her confidante and assistant Brigette Conseil (Lanise Antoine Shelley). They’re accompanied by an obstreperous Canuck harpooner Ned Land (“Walter Briggs” in the film, played by Douglas) who’s bent on escape. Aronnax will go on to write about Nemo, emphasizing his scientific research and, soft-pedaling his predations, all but acknowledging her sympathy with the devil. (The “Stockholm syndrome,” it seems, goes way back.)

Unwanted and amazed, all the observers of The Nautilus testify to a lethal genius who has found perfect freedom in his watery realm, scavenging booty from the ships he’s wrecked, watching from his parlor porthole phosphorescent marvels and, here, actual flying fish (from rods). Kareem Bandealy plays his literally bottom-feeding Nemo — deemed an “angel of hatred” by Aronnax — with contagious relish. Bandealy exudes a palpable and unrepentant delight in plumbing both the depths of depravity and the ocean. As the real U.S. Nautilus would do to the North Pole in 1959, Nemo even slides under the South Pole — but, going one better, he also discovers the submerged land of Atlantis.

In the novel, Nemo’s submarine perishes in a Norwegian maelstrom. In Kersnar’s perhaps overfreighted version, Nemo expires among the second and American batch of interlopers, as if to enjoy a “last words” valedictory (“Almighty God! Enough! Enough!”).

No question, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas offers Lookingglass a virtual wish list of special effects. But, unlike Moby Dick, the stage pictures delivered by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, prop designer Amanda Herrmann, circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, and puppeteers Blair Thomas, Tom Lee and Christ Wooten, feel fragmentary. (Well, to be fair, we never saw the entire white whale or Pequod either.) Unlike the movie’s menacingly spiked superstructure, we never get a sense of the entire Nautilus, its interior Victorian gorgeousness, or a complete giant squid. (But that huge tentacle is scary as it lifts a victim high above the stage.) We also never witness the sinking of a warship (though there are miniature ships on an imaginary horizon). And, unfortunately, on opening night, due to some twisted rigging, a stunning scene depicting pearl divers suspended in the sea did not come off, but the show went on. We’re told it was not to be missed.

Happily, the ardent acting from Kersnar’s nine-person troupe works to balance any missing make-believe. Overall this exciting venture is pretty much full speed ahead. Davey Jones’s locker gets the visit it deserves.

photos by Liz Lauren and Philip R. Smith

20,000 Leagues Under the Seas
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
ends on August 19, 2018
EXTENDED to September 9, 2018
for tickets, call 312.337.0665
or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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