Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Sept. 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Lookingglass Theatre Company may be the victim of its own success. If any other theater in town presented this “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas,” it would be hailed as a triumph of storytelling and stagecraft. But for the ensemble that has been responsible for such stellar shows as “Lookingglass Alice” and “Moby Dick,” this latest world premiere comes up short.
Putting aside the fact that it seemed under rehearsed on press night, judging by the flubbed lines and a missing special effect, both the script and the staging need work. Creators David Kersnar and Althos Low (a.k.a. Steve Pickering) adapted the story from Jules Vernes’ “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” but they also added the frame from the French author’s “The Mysterious Island” (and the “s” to “seas” in the title). In addition, they changed the gender (and name) of the narrator, Professor Morgan Aronnax (Kasey Foster; Madeleine Lambert beginning Aug. 30), and her assistant, Brigette Conseil (Lanise Antoine Shelley; Kylie Anderson beginning Aug. 30), scientists who join the expedition to find a terrifying sea monster the professor thinks might be a giant narwhal.
While the gender switch allows for predictably amusing commentary on attitudes towards women in Victorian times and our own—not to mention the only two female roles in the cast—the source of the voice-over narration is at first confusing. Even more of a problem is the density of exposition exacerbated by the frame, which bogs down the action.
One thread focuses on Aronnax and Conseil, who are hurriedly heading to board the United States Navy frigate Abraham Lincoln under the command of Captain Farragut (Joe Dempsey). At about the same time, master harpoonist Ned Land (Walter Briggs) is hauled onboard by the authorities, having committed an infringement for which he is confined to the brig for a time, after which he more-or-less befriends the women. The ship travels south around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean and is about to give up the search when the “monster” is spotted. The navy’s attacks are met in kind, and Aronnax, Conseil, and Land are hurled into the water. They grasp onto the creature and discover it to be a submarine far ahead of its time, whereupon they are captured and brought inside the Nautilus to meet its commander, Captain Nemo (Kareem Bandealy).
Interwoven is the tale of five men, including Cyrus Smith (Edwin Lee Gibson; Chiké Johnson July 31-Aug. 26; Amro Salama beginning Aug. 30) and journalist Gideon Spillet (Thomas J. Cox), who escape a Confederate prison in a hot air balloon and end up on an island where, after receiving lots of secret help from him, they find the old and dying Nemo and his hidden Nautilus. Spillet has read about him in Aronnax’s books, but the version of the tale Nemo tells is very different, from his reasons for retreating from civilization to his back story as a wronged Indian prince.
As the play cuts back and forth between the two accounts, it’s hard to know whether the heart of the matter is supposed to be Aronnax’s adventures and discoveries in the underwater world or Nemo’s anger and self-justifications. The focus remains murky, as does the exact nature of the shifting relationship between them. Their shared love of knowledge doesn’t quite come through on his end. Her disenchantment is understandably abrupt when he destroys a ship killing all aboard for no good reason in her opinion, but the nuances of character development get short shrift. Although it’s clear that violence begets violence, how much of Nemo’s behavior we’re meant to condone isn’t.
Technically, Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design combines a gorgeous Victorian ship’s bow with a stunningly inventive way of turning the platform stage into a submarine with windows through which to see the underwater world. Credit goes to all the designers, among them Christine Binder for lighting, Sully Ratke for costumes, and Rick Sims for sound. Blair Thomas, Tom Lee, and Chris Wooten designed the puppet sea creatures, and I only wish there were more of them. Ditto the special effects spearheaded by circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi and rigging designer Isaac Schoepp: They’re nice but no match for those in “Moby Dick.”
I also wanted more from the acting, Bandealy’s Nemo comes across as a megalomaniac without enough humanity to arouse much, if any, sympathy. Foster’s Aronnax strikes all the right notes as a smart, liberated woman but somehow remains rather aloof. Briggs’ Land is the source of most of the evening’s limited humor.
All in all, “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” left me somewhat disappointed but still was a journey worth taking.