The name Nemo (not to be confused with the animated fish created by Pixar) is well known to kids who have read Jules Verne's classic science-fiction novel about a crazed captain aboard a gigantic submarine. Verne's book is often adapted for children to focus on the adventure aspects of the story, but the unabridged version includes heady existential musings and sociopolitical philosophizing.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, now running at the New Victory Theater in a spectacularly designed stage adaptation created by Craig Francis and Rick Miller, doesn't shy away from including some of the novel's larger themes. With an astonishing array of gorgeous projections designed by Deco Dawson, Miller, who also directs, gives this story a modern twist by touching on the problem of oceanic pollution and its harmful effects on the planet.
This multimedia retelling follows modern-day doctoral student Jules (Miller in an energetic, nonstop performance), who studies the garbage-strewn sea and who also happens to love Verne's novel. Using small play figures and large projections, Jules directly addresses the audience as he imagines himself traveling back in time to 1868 and taking part in the adventures of Professor Aronnax (Suzy Jane Hunt), who heads out to sea to investigate an enormous object moving through the oceans' depths. Jules, Aronnax, and their assistant, the gnarly seaman Ned Land (Marcel Jeannin), are kidnapped by the misanthropic Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin), who has created a "utopia" inside his huge submarine, the Nautilus. Voyaging around the world, Nemo and his captives fight a gigantic squid, ram into some intruding ships, and engage in discussions of freedom and dictatorship until Jules and his friends manage to escape.
Dawson's beautiful projections are the highlight of this production. Eye-popping underwater images, a spectacular representation of an undulating sea, and perception-altering effects (watch for the cleverly staged dinner-table episodes) will get kids oohing and aahing. Itai Erdal's lighting also adds aspookiness to the Nautilus scenes in which Aronnax and Ned Land are held prisoner in the brig.
Francis and Miller are to be commended for challenging young audiences by staying true to Verne's larger vision. Literary references (mentions of Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab are plentiful) and philosophical terms like nihilism pop up regularly. Younger audience members might be perplexed by that kind of language, as well as by the plot, which blends the 1860s (Yannik Larivée's costumes suggest that time) with the present day (Jules' anachronistic cellphone has a significant role to play toward the end).
The story becomes muddled while trying to shoehorn these big ideas and exciting events into an hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission. The four performers keep things as lively as they can (a few dialogue-heavy interludes slow things down), but the sheer number of scenes and the quick pace at which they change doesn't allow for the audience to settle into one moment for very long, making the action a little hard to follow at times.
Still, this trip on the Nautilus is worth the plunge. Kids, and adults too, will be mesmerized by the illusions. And if Miller's second-act reflections on pollution imbue the next generation with a new respect and concern for our planet and oceans, that would be a welcome sea change indeed.
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