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THEATER REVIEW 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas (sic)
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: David Kersnar & Althos Low

At: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets: 312-337-0665;; $45-$80. Run through: Aug. 19

Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas ( plural ), first published in 1869-70, featured meticulous scientific research for its time and a rip-snorting story with secretive Capt. Nemo as the antagonist. So vivid was Nemo—the name ( with Latin/Greek roots ) didn't exist until Verne employed it—that he quickly eclipsed the intended hero and narrator of the tale, French marine biologist Prof. Pierre Aronnax.

When Nemo next appeared in Verne's 1874 follow-up, Mysterious Island, he was the central figure narrating his detailed backstory which was almost entirely missing in 20,000 Leagues. Across nearly two dozen screen adaptations ( the first a 1916 silent film ), the obviously indelible Nemo has been played by Lionel Barrymore, James Mason, Herbert Lom, Michael Caine, Omar Sharif, Patrick Stewart, Ben Cross and Jose Ferrer, among others.

For this vigorous new production, adapters David Kersnar ( also the director ) and Althos Low combine Mysterious Island and ( mostly ) 20,000 Leagues to create a complete character arc for Nemo ( intense, thoughtful Kareem Bandealy ), revealed in Mysterious Island to be of South Asian royal heritage. The major alteration is to recast Pierre Aronnax as female Prof. Morgan Aronnax ( Kasey Foster ), and ditto her assistant, Conseil ( Lanise Antoine Shelley ). In the mold of tomb-raider Lara Croft, they are fighting scientists required to use knives and fists. The sex change is handled adroitly in the new/altered text but doesn't impact the plot or final outcome at all, so the sole motive is the opportunity to make contemporary statements about mistaken perceptions ( limitations ) of women in male-dominant cultures. It may not be a distraction but it provides limited value.

This adaptation squarely is about Nemo, who is far more conflicted, outraged and complex than in other portrayals. Ideas of justice, responsibility and morality are raised frequently, along with social roles one may be required to play. Ace Canadian harpooner Ned Lane ( Walter Briggs )—a captive of Nemo's along with Aronnax and Conseil—is a rascal and rule-breaker, so it's interesting to weigh his opposition to rule-breaker Nemo. Is Nemo an archetypal supervillain who wishes to punish the world, or an avatar of a new world order? You decide.

Lookingglass' 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas offers a varied and appealing physical production involving wonderful puppets of ships and sea creatures, agile physical work by the company, some circus skills, exotic costuming, astute lighting and multi-layer scenic design. Nemo's ship, The Nautilus, is not conveyed with specific exterior or interior details so one shouldn't anticipate the literalness of the still-popular 1954 Disney film. Likewise, the attack of the giant squid ( squids in the original ) is a game-changer in the film but not in this production ( nor the novel ), although the puppet technology in both is about equal!

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