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Lookingglass' Big Hunch


Lookingglass Theatre has relied heavily on instinct when selecting winning projects, and this summer is no different with an adaptation of the expansive and iconic Jules Verne work, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas.


By Oscar Peterson

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From the Summer 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

​Nineteenth century French novelist, poet and playwright Jules Gabriel Verne was nothing if not a man of great vision. It was Verne’s extraordinary inspiration that brought us iconic literary achievements Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. Presenting extraordinary works that took adventure to realms yet unreached at the time, Verne believed that the radical worlds he would create would not only be accepted by readers, but that they would set a new, imaginative standard for science-fiction writing, moving the genre forward in ways yet unseen. He played a hunch.

This summer, Chicago’s own visionary ensemble, Lookingglass Theater, is playing a hunch of its own with a sprawling new adaptation that brings Verne’s breathtaking 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas to life on the stage in the company’s historic Water Tower Works building in Downtown, Chicago.

It’ll be no small feat, to be sure. The classic underwater tale is considered one of the premiere adventure novels in the cannon and among Verne’s own greatest works. Its title refers to the distance traveled while under the sea (as opposed to depth) and follows the adventures of the awe-inspiring Nautilus, an underwater vessel that actually anticipated today’s massive submarines, something unheard of at the time. Traversing 20,000 leagues under the covert of the Water Tower Works theater will no doubt test the limits of Lookingglass’ imaginative ensemble.

​But, to be honest, Lookingglass Theatre is no stranger to playing hunches. The company has cultivated an impressive reputation of high caliber, expansive stagings bringing adaptations of epic and imaginative tales to life season after season. Keeping its scripts taut and its flying high, Lookingglass has leveraged seemingly limitless ingenuity and a feracious relationship with Evanston aerial training center Actors Gymnasium to expand its Water Tower Works stage and its audiences’s imaginations. And that’s good because as epic tales go, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is about as expansive as they come.

​The story begins to unfold when ships spot a terrifying sea monster just off the U.S. coast. Renowned scientist Professor Aronnax and fellow explores are dispatched by the government to investigate the sighting. But soon after, the team finds itself kidnapped--and captivated--by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Circling the globe aboard the most advanced and impressive submarine the world ever made (yet never seen), they confront horrific sea creatures, enormous squids and monsters that lurk beneath while contending with demons within.

Taking on the task of adapting this incredibly expansive experience for the live stage are Lookingglass ensemble members, playwright Steve Pickering and director and playwright David Kersnar. Kersnar, who will direct the new adaptation this summer,  recalled for me how the idea for adapting Verne’s classic novel first came to light. “Back in 2011, fellow ensemble member Phil Smith and I were sitting in the theater during a break from tech for the play I co-wrote and directed, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison. We were brainstorming a future production, and started thinking about how the theater itself feels like a submarine with all of the working pipes in the pumping station.” Kersnar’s mind instantly flew to the idea of adapting 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. He had a hunch it could be another winning work for the company. After all, Lookingglass ensemble member Laura Eason had provided ample inspiration for the project in her recent adaptation of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, and as Kersnar put it, “Lookingglass already had a good track record of staging the impossible.”

​Though the task wasn’t a simple one, it would not need to rework the themes Verne first introduced with his novel for a contemporary audience. For Kersnar, those themes are as relevant today as they were back in 1871. Of course, the basic architecture of the story offers the same kind of thrills in 2018 as it did nearly 150 years ago. Victorian submarines, harrowing sea battles and razor thin escapes are certainly par for the course in today’s theater landscape. But Kersner points out that on a deeper level, the story has “become a near-parable: more resonant to our world, now, than to the society for which it was originally intended. Its themes regarding the moral responsibilities of science developed for destructive uses, and its themes about our responsibility to the health of the Earth’s environment and oceans, are issues of our time in ways that Verne was only guessing at.” 

​In fact, Kersnar makes it clear that Verne created a world that while similar to his own was centuries ahead of its time. His literary inventions of underwater vessels, and electrical threads were unheard of during its first reading but all seemingly came true. One point of departure the new adaptation will take from the novel, Kersner explains, was the inclusion of an uprising that Verne included in the original manuscript mirroring the real life January Polish revolt against Russian rule in 1863. Verne’s editor insisted on sanitizing the work so that any periodical wishing to avoid controversy would not abandon publication of its episodes.

​Kersnar and Pickering crafted a version, however,  that restores Verne’s political and futuristic narrative by honoring revisions in one of the episodes, The Mysterious Island, with a new Nemo backstory based on the actual events from the time, events not so dissimilar to those of our world today. Kersnar believes that while many of Verne’s themes resonate resoundingly in present day, those that speak to civil unrest and social recompense are ones the author would be most pleased with having predicted. Says Kersnar, “I believe if Verne were alive today, he would delight in the fact that future survival of our species is no longer just about industry or technical progress, but rather, social justice,”

​Like many of Lookingglass Theatre’s productions, creating a contemporary context for epic literary works wasn’t the real issue with 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. The issue was fitting the far-reaching ecosystem of Nemo and the Nautilus into the not so expansive space of Michigan Avenue’s Water Tower Works.

For that, Lookingglass played the hunch that, on the same stage, has brought to life Ahab’s iconic pursuit in Moby Dick and led audiences down the rabbit hole with a disquisitive Alice in its world renowned signature production, Lookingglass Alice--and all to lavish critical acclaim. That hunch has in its essence a synergetic spirit that harnesses creativity, resourcefulness and a dash of brilliance. Kersnar explains, “Each of us at Lookingglass has a different process but we share similar core values of transformation, collaboration and invention. What does that mean? We choose certain physical and visual elements that we have a hunch will serve the mission and point of view of the production.

​“We often start with a physical or visual hunch to support the mission of the mission or “big idea” of the adaption of the extant text. For early college productions of this show, we used video projections to create the underwater world. But the digital technology stuck out and was too contemporary for our 19th century story. For this production all images are actually created and performed by human hand through intercultural puppetry as well as chain and rope rigging.”

As for the sheer physicality of the work, Lookingglass relied on its relationship with Actors Gymnasium and its ability to take the story into the space above the stage to create the expansive journey audiences will take.

Run by Lookingglass artistic associate Sylvia Hernandez, Actors Gymnasium set about to test  many of the physical elements of the adaptation that would help create Verne’s amazing underwater world  staging physical sequences one by one during several dedicated days up at the gym’s home in Evanston.

​Kersnar is mum on the specifics of what wonders we’ll see, of course, but he did reveal that in the course of the staging audiences will witness the company lift the hoist the largest and heaviest object ever in the 30 years of the theater’s work.

​As for the challenge of bringing the script to life, much of the heavy lifting has been left to a cast of Chicago stage veterans that include Lookingglass artistic associate  Walter Briggs, ensemble member Thomas J. Cox, Joseph Dempsey, Micah Figueroa ensemble member Kareem Bandealy, who will take on the role of Nemo.

Bandealy, whose credits span local Chicago and regional theater, film and television, is an actor Kersnar trusts to flesh out Nemo’s nuances in the spirit of collaboration core to Lookingglass’ creative culture. “I first directed him in 2011 in The Last Act Of Lilka Kadison,” Kersnar told me. “Kareem is a leader and multi-talented artist. As with many productions at Lookingglass, we pride ourselves in honoring ‘the best idea in the room.’ Sometimes this comes from the director but more often it comes from the cast. Directing more often than not is listening. Kareem deeply understands Nemo. Kareem is not just an actor,  his new play, Act(s) of God, will be featured in next year’s Lookingglass season. I would be a fool not to listen to him.”

For Bandealy, approaching an iconic character like Nemo holds two foci: being mindful of the historic portrayals of the imposing captain while also creating something entirely new for audiences of this adaptation. He explains, “When asked to play a personality like Nemo (or any iconic character, for that matter), I think it’s incredibly valuable to expose myself to as many historically significant imaginings of that character as I can. The aim in it is not to steal a smart choice, nor to allow these portrayals to influence my own in any way, but rather to be aware of the places where past audiences have already been taken. Though…I think most people don’t want to see something they’ve seen before. Once it’s done, it’s done. Great stories aren’t great because they keep frozen. They’re great because they’re still relevant. And that means that in their DNA, the author left series upon series of mutable genes. So that they can adapt with time, and soothe or provoke the collective soul of an audience through the ages with no less potency than when they were new. This isn’t done by repeating, it’s done by relating, by talking a little truth to some people in a room about their very lives.

​“So, though the primary text exists and versions of this story have been told over and over in various media, I am certainly, in a sense, starting from a clean slate on Nemo. I’m entering this process in the same spirit as I would a new play. In fact, it is. And without going into too much detail or giving anything away, I think audiences are going to see that right off. They’re going to see a confluence of Jules Verne, David Kersnar’s imagistically genius touch, Althos Low’s uncanny sense for sharp, rich dialogue, superlative sculpting from top-notch designers and choreographers, well-considered interpretations of character (along with considerable sweat) from our cast, and just plain wizardry from our crew.”

For that crew, Kersnar has tapped a host of talented partners uniquely positioned to elevate this production to the stratosphere of Lookingglass’ past successes. Along with Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi’s prowess at circus choreography, they have lighting designer Christine A. Binder, costume designer Sully Radtke and the acclaimed Blair Thomas Puppetry team to aid in providing stunning visual imagery. Kersnar insists the mix of talents will collectively hold no bars in bringing Lookingglass’ latest hunch to brilliant life. “This team was picked to blow out all the stops,” says Kersnar. “Many I have worked with for years, such as lighting designer Chris Binder and composer/recording artist Rick Sims, who know how to turn on the big bold choices I need. Others, like set designer Todd Rosenthal and Carolyn Radke, I have wanted to work with for a long time and knew I needed their help turning this adventure up to full blast.”

In a lot of ways, Kersnar and his team are helping to fuel a real renaissance of sorts uncovering the magic of Jules Verne’s work. The importance of 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas to the adventure genre is arguably incalculable and presenting it afresh to audiences this summer will bring his own discovery of its magic full circle. “I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s watching the Disney ’54 film over and over,” Kersnar explains. “This story is considered the masterpiece of one of the primary creators of modern science-fiction—especially in its newer, more faithful translations of the past decade. There’s an enormous amount of new scholarship about Verne. In many ways, he’s an author being rediscovered.” And this summer, because of Lookingglass Theatre’s big hunch, it’s likely new audiences will be discovering Verne’s work in exciting and inventive new ways--ways that will help propel interest in the author’s work for decades to come.

Lookingglass Theatre’s new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is currently onstage at, Water Tower Works (821 N. Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago) through August 19, 2018.


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Lookingglass ensemble member Kareem Bandealy (photo by Sean Williams).

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