Lookingglass’s “20,000 Leagues” is a Visually Arresting Show


Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Liz Lauren.

Lookingglass Theatre has become renowned over the years for inventive staging of shows, including the use of puppetry. I don’t think, though, that they’ve ever had to tackle a giant squid before. In the adaptation by Steve Pickering (Althos Low) and director David Kersnar of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, though, there was no getting around it: the attack by the monstrous squid is almost as iconic a part of the work as the Nautilus itself and its haunted, driven Captain Nemo. In addition to the puppets, lovely rope work and strong performances help to tell the story of the long journey in the submersible and the adventures encountered along the way. It’s a story that is most satisfying in its visually transporting action moments though, like Verne’s book itself, it can get a bit sluggish in the spots in between. Then again, I suppose that’s what a journey of over 69,000 miles would actually be like, and all of the wonderful action scenes make the whole thing a very entertaining experience.

      Kersnar and Low are fairly true to the text of Verne’s classic works of steampunk science fiction, with one key exception: the role of the Professor Morgan Arronax, who is held captive on the vessel and through whose eyes much of the tale is told, is played by a woman, Kasey Foster, and her aide-de-camp (here called Brigette) is also a woman (Lanise Antoine Shelley). Following the lead of other key 19th Century examples of women masquerading as men in order to further careers, Kersnar and Low imagine Arronax as one of them, allowing female actors into what otherwise would have been a boys’ club. Foster and Shelley are rock solid as the scientist who falls in love with all of the new information she gains on the journey and the helper who reminds her that, somehow, they have to get free. Joining them as captives is Walter Briggs as Canadian harpoonist Ned Land. The three characters occupy the moral center of this production, with Foster as the emotionally entangled scientist, Shelley as her conscience, and Briggs as the desire to act. Their story, though, takes a back seat to the more powerful visuals the play offers. 

When the story is not being told from Arronax’s point of view, it shifts years into the future to the tale of five soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Smith (Edwin Lee Gibson), escapees from a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp who have been rescued by Nemo for his own reasons. As they encounter the “mythical” ship and its angry, mysterious captain, they learn that what Arronax wrote about his/her encounter with Nemo was not the full story because Nemo had withheld some very private details from the Professor. Piecing both versions of the story together, then, we are able to see a much more complete picture.

As Nemo, Kareem Bandealy is a force to be reckoned with. Angry and prone to vicious attacks on other seafaring vessels (whom he sees as “enemy combatants), Nemo appears at first to be more of a “monster” than the epic sea creature his ship is rumored to be by terrified people who have encountered it. That he ultimately becomes more than that is a tribute to Bandealy’s ability to evoke sympathy for a mass murderer as we learn more about his story.

That story is told, as noted earlier, using several different tricks from the Lookingglass repertoire. The Nautilus itself is suggested, in Todd Rosenthal’s glorious set, by its hatchway and a rising platform that is used both for its exterior and its interior. Denizens of the deep, as well as the ships seen throughout the play, are shown through puppetry. Ships roll over rollicking seas. Sharks and fish swim among the audience. It’s visually arresting, but not quite as arresting as the spectacular rope work we first see in the aforementioned giant squid scene. As the enormous tentacle of the animal wraps itself around her, Brigette is lifted into the air and whirled around as, in exhausting fury, she tries to stab the thing with a knife. Another rope scene, this one quiet and beautiful, involves a pearl diver (Micah Figueroa); unfortunately, this scene was cut for safety reasons on opening night after the rigging became twisted, but I’ve seen it on video and it is remarkable.

That rigging incident was the most significant issue on opening night, though the show was marked by many unfortunate line problems probably due to jitters. I’m sure that all of these will be rectified as it goes forward, and that’s a good thing because this production is a solid piece of entertainment. And being put on in the already retro environs of the Water Works simply adds to its mystique. It is a fun, visually thrilling show, one well worth seeing.

20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is a Lookingglass Theatre production now playing at Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, until August 19. Performance times vary; check the website at Lookingglass Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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