Playwrights Cliff Sheffer and Ann Sonneville take on a classic. Jules Verne’s story was an exploration of unchartered territories. Verne described aquatic adventures via underwater vessels. His book published in 1870 prophesied the invention of the submarine. Verne’s imagination was the driving force behind the masterpiece. He tethered generations of readers to believe the impossible was possible. On the stark second stage at Strawdog, Sheffer and Sonneville, along with Director Mike Mroch, rely heavily on imagination too. This time it’s the audience that is required to take a deeper dive into make-believe.
Sheffer and Sonneville boil down the eccentric Captain Nemo’s voyages into short scenes of dialogue interspersed between scenes of movement. The story starts out at a bar. Very early, a sailors‘ brawl breaks out. R&D Choreography impressively kick up a sh#t storm on a small set with a large cast, a dozen actors. There is a real fear that someone might get hurt, including the audience, as sailors are hurled, throttled and thrashed. The action stops abruptly, almost awkwardly. The fighting is intriguing but then limited explanation gets our pioneering trio; Mike Steele (Arronax), Walls Trimble (Conseil), Lee Russell (Ned), from skirmish to ship. After they board without much convincing, the ship very quickly crashes.
Again, the movement takes focus as Mroch unfolds the essences of the story like a dance. The shipwreck sends our trio into the sea struggling for their lives. The choreography uses the ensemble to gracefully show the trio being lifted, tossed and turned by waves. The look is mesmerizing as we see the individual’s physical struggle to survive the sea. The trio are then captured by the mysterious Captain Nemo (played by Kathryn Wolf). Again the actual conversations are minimal which Wolf uses to her advantage to cloak herself in haughty peculiarity. Wolf often responds to inquiries with uncomfortable laughter and steely silence.
The ambitious show begs to be more of an extravaganza. It wants to be a sea-worthy spectacle. The cast go on excursions with clever painted flashlights and makeshift diving gear. They encounter ensemble members doing their best fish impressions. It’s not that it’s not good. It’s just hard to visualize. Often the talented cast are obscured behind seats or columns. They try to do their best, in-sync, over-sized octopus. I just can’t see it! Sheffer and Sonneville wrote a play that could be a designers‘ showcase. Although the pageantry possibilities are vast within this 20,000 LEAGUES, the execution is a big-fish-in-a-small-pond. The rustic Hugen Hall is limiting. I’d like to see the Nautilus make it out on open waters, or Strawdog mainstage, and seeing what she really can do with more resources fueling her expedition!
Running Time: Seventy-five minutes with no intermission
At Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway
Based on the novel by Jules Verne
Adapted by Clint Sheffer and Ann Sonneville
Directed by Mike Mroch
Saturdays at 4pm
Sundays ay 12pm
Mondays and Tuesdays at 8pm
Thru April 7th
Buy Tickets at www.strawdog.org
All Photos by TCMcG Photography
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