Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

20,000 Leagues Under the Seas
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's reviews of The 45th Annual 2017 Non-Equity Jeff Awards and Len Cariou: Broadway and the Bard

Micah Figueroa and company
Photo by Liz Lauren
Perhaps looking to create another monster hit like their 2015 adaptation of Melville’s Moby Dick (which they remounted in summer 2017), Lookingglass Theatre has turned to another nautical adventure novel, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. And yes, the plural “seas” is a correct translation of Verne’s original title in the French, thank you very much. Lookingglass does all sorts of theatre but their signature is productions featuring acrobatics designed by their artistic associate Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. Hernandez-DiStasi is again at work here, in this original adaptation by ensemble member David Kersnar and Althos Low (aka Steve Pickering), and she has several moments that provide some genuine theatrical magic in taking audiences under the seas. She does this with the help of puppets designed by Blair Thomas, Tom Lee and Chris Wooten serve as underwater creatures like the giant squid that wraps itself around the submarine Nautilus, clever lighting by Christine Binder and acrobatics performed on the rigging designed by Isaac Schoepp.

Kersnar and Low’s script is not dominated by special effects, though, and there are long stretches of dialogue and character development that allow for some accomplished acting by a nine-person cast—six of whom play multiple roles in addition to dangling above the stage on trapezes. Kersnar and Low bookend the story with characters and situation from Verne’s The Mysterious Island, in which a group of castaways stranded on an island encounter the Nautilus and finding it their only hope of getting home, enter the vessel. They meet its designer and skipper, the mysterious Captain Nemo, who they know from the stories of Professor Aronnax and her companions—a threesome who years earlier were captured by Nemo and forced to travel under the seas with him for months before finally escaping. Nemo tells the castaways his side of the story—and thus the main portion of the tale—that of the original novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas—begins.

Following that initial framing, the main story has a setup in which the US military sends the warship Abraham Lincoln out from New York to kill what they believe to be a monster terrorizing commercial trade on the high seas. We meet the characters Professor Aronnax—who in this telling is a woman posing as a man so that her academic work will be respective—her servant Conseil (here Brigitte Conseil) in another gender switch from the novel, and the harpooner Ned Land (still a man). They leave on their mission and spend some time at seas before the first big moment—their battle with the Nautilus, which they believe to be a whale rather than a submarine. Together with the introductory framing this makes for a long wait before getting to the good stuff when they lose the battle and we have our first visual bonanza. The Abraham Lincoln is destroyed and the trio of Aronnax, Conseil and Land are left floating in the water before being rescued by the Nautilus and facing the judgement of Captain Nemo.

Much of what follows is a battle of wits between the brilliant but maniacal Nemo (charismatically played by Kareem Bandealy), the crafty Aronnax (the appealing Kasey Foster), her resourceful and sharp-tongued maid Conseil (a great comic performance by Lanise Antoine Shelley) and the brash, often drunken Ned Land (the comically macho Walter Briggs). Kersnar, who directs his script, admits in program notes to a desire for gender balance in reconceiving Aronnax and Conseil as women, and it’s a smart decision on a number of levels. Knowing Aronnax is a woman competing in a man’s arena implies a strength and resourcefulness that makes her a more formidable match for Nemo. The possibility that her relationship with Nemo could become romantic adds a level of sexual tension that heightens the stakes. Kersnar and Low also include a good deal of social comment and philosophy on the idea of a man so totally withdrawing from the world and retreating to the world-within-the-world of the underwater so that he can live outside the grasp of any government.

In between the set pieces—including a beautiful pearl-diving scene (that malfunctioned on opening but was shared with the critics via video after the fact)—the dialogue gives the adults (and thoughtful young audiences) ideas to chew on even as we’re wowed by the ability of Kersnar and his designers (Todd Rosenthal, scenic design; Christine Binder, lighting designer and Sully Ratke, costume design) to take us back 150 years and down below sea level. It doesn’t quite equal the sustained level of spectacle and inspire as much awe as did the company’s earlier Moby Dick, but I suspect those who didn’t see the earlier play with be equally wowed.

20,000 Leagues Under the Seas will play at Lookingglass Theatre, inside the historic Water Tower Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, through August 19, 2018. Tickets and additional info are available at or by phone at 312-337-0665.

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