Chicago Theatre Review
A Whale of a Tale
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Strawdog Theatre
Jules Verne’s 1870 sci-fi classic, was subtitled “An Underwater Tour of the World.” More scientifically accurate than his Journey to the Center of the Earth and more exciting than his Around the World in 80 Days, this book remains one of Verne’s most popular novels, even to this day. Originally serialized in a popular French magazine, it tells the adventurous story of French Professor Arronax, his devoted young servant and assistant, Conseil and Ned Land, a Canadian whaler, all of whom are rescued at sea and held captive aboard Captain Nemo’s extraordinary submarine, the Nautilus. Their adventures take them around the world beneath the surface of the seven seas.
In 1866 an expedition is assembled to find and destroy a mysterious aquatic creature that’s been attacking and destroying sailing ships. Thought to be a giant narwhale, the ship’s captain hires Ned Land, noted Canadian whaling expert, the marine specialist, Professor Arronax and his able assistant, Conseil. When their ship is ambushed and sunk, these three survivors are rescued by Nemo’s crew and brought aboard the Nautilus to be held as prisoners. Gradually the mysterious Captain begins to educate, entertain and confide in his guests, particularly the esteemed professor. The captives are eventually entrusted with secrets heretofore unknown by anyone and they’re eventually given a limited run of the ship. Their palettes are treated to various delicacies of the deep; they’re introduced to uncharted lands, especially the world beneath the waves; the men are given opportunities to explore aquatic wildlife, geological wonders on the ocean floor and archeological finds, often through the use of Nemo’s unique underwater breathing apparatus. The three men gradually come to witness and fear Captain Nemo’s unpredictable anger and unforeseen mental and emotional degeneration. They soon realize that, if they’re to survive and given the opportunity, they must escape their imprisonment.
Although Verne’s novel has already been translated into countless other literary forms, as well as films, musicals and plays, Chicagoans Clint Sheffer and Ann Sonneville decided to have a go at adapting this classic into an 75-minute stage version, especially intended for this space. Frequent Strawdog collaborator Mike Mroch has taken a very singular, physical approach to bringing their world premier to life. There’s a certain gymnastic look and feel to this production, as characters swim through space, catapulted into the air by fellow actors. With little in the way of scenery, other than John Kelly’s limited, but effective lighting plot and a handful of interestingly created props (designed by Jamie Karas), Mr. Mroch taps into the viewer’s imagination to create Verne’s undersea world. Except for a violent, rather confusing and cacophonous opening scene, set in a New York City tavern, this production is very imaginative and fun for kids and adults, as well.
Mike Steele inhabits the cerebral Professor Arronax. Played like a kid in a candy store, Mr. Steele makes each new exploration and discovery a wonder that the audience shares through his eyes. Participating in the professor’s enthusiasm for new scientific wonders, Walls Trimble makes a caring and devoted Conseil. Lee Russell’s portrayal of Ned Land is both masculine and courageous, with a just a hint of paternal protectiveness. And unusually cast as a female, Kathrynne Wolf brings layers of madness and revenge to her usual intellectual interpretation of Captain Nemo. The eight-person ensemble, which includes the handsome Scott Cupper as a stalwart Commander Farragut, captain of the ship that the Nautilus demolishes near the beginning of the play, are all hard-working actors. Playing all form of character, from obedient members of Nemo’s crew to the much-anticipated giant squid, this company meets every challenge.
The father of science fiction literature would be pleased at how well his much-loved Victorian novel has translated to the 21st century stage. Much as the author did with his novels, Mroch’s production taps into the audience’s imagination, allowing them to help create this rousing, thought-provoking theatrical experience that’s suitable for audiences, middle school age to adult. This is one whale of a tale that’s bound to bring enjoyment to new audiences in this unique, new voyage.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 8-April 7 by Strawdog Theatre Company at their Hugen Hall venue, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.