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Arts and Entertainment Saturday, Jun. 17, 2017 3 months ago

Theater review: 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea'

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Multimedia, multisensory adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic immerses audiences in an oceanic experience.
by: Marty Fugate Staff Writer

Rick Miller and Craig Francis’ “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is making a big splash at the Asolo Rep. This adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is a whole lot of fun. That’s by design — and a high-tech design it is. The machinery of joy is state-of-the-art.

Suzy Jane Hunt and Brendan McMahon. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman

Francis and Miller brings the oceanic feeling to life with a cunning mix of puppets, projections and action figures. While their production company is called Kiddoons, what they’ve created is hardly a kiddie show.

They play tricks with your mind. They jolt your perceptions with abrupt shifts in perspective, scale and orientation — like the scene that tricks you into thinking you’re looking down at four characters sitting around a dining table. Stuff cranks down from pulleys! Stuff pops out of the stage! A radio-controlled inflatable sharks drifts through the auditorium; then a puppeteer strides by with a dagger-jawed angler fish!

Brendan McMahon. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman.

Up on stage, a balcony folds and becomes the bow of the Nautilus cutting through the waves. Multiple overlapping projections dazzle you with crashing waves, a calving iceberg, a ballet of bioluminescent jellyfish, an animated world map, the aftermath of a naval battle and, yes, of course, that giant squid they keep talking about.

Kudos to a top-flight team of theatrical designers. Deco Dawson’s projections, Marcus Jamin and Shawn Kettner’s puppetry, Richard Feren’s sound and Itai Erdal’s lighting make the multisensory, multimedia magic happen. Their steampunk spectacle is dazzling, hypnotic, immersive and very, very clever.

Thanks to all that technological overkill, the experience unfolds with only four actors. Serafin Falcón, Brendan McMahon, Suzy Jane Hunt and Marcel Jeannin deliver solid performances under co-creator Rick Miller’s full-tilt-boogie direction.

Oh. And I almost forgot — somewhere in the flash and filigree, there’s also a story.

Serafín Falcón and Brendan McMahon. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman.

The show wraps Verne’s 19th-century tale in a 21st-century frame story. Jules (McMahon), is a bored contemporary research student, mired in the Sargasso Sea of his depressing doctoral thesis on the inevitable collapse of oceanic ecosystems. But with the aid of a few action figures and a powerful imagination, he escapes! Jules inserts himself in Verne’s undersea odyssey as both a character and the narrator. He promptly sets a course for a happy ending.

Aside from the anachronistic addition of Jules, the loss of a few minor characters and a sex-change for Professor Arronax (Hunt), the broad outlines of Verne’s tale stay the same.

A misanthropic genius who calls himself “Captain Nemo” (Falcón) invents a self-sustaining, deep-water submarine about a century ahead of schedule. After withdrawing from civilization for good, he spends his time investigating the oceans and battling the forces of imperialism and ecological devastation. After a sea skirmish, Nemo picks up three castaways and informs them that they’re on the Nautilus for good. When Ned (Jeannin), the illiterate, macho harpooner, sends an SOS to the world, the navies of the world close in. There’s a big battle. Nemo rams several ships. After that ...

I’m not sure what happens next, and I’m not sure it matters.

The production is experiential. Narrative is secondary to artifice. The play enfolds you in a clever illusion that never tries to convince you it’s anything else.

Marcel Jeannin and Brendan McMahon. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman.

There’s a word for that.

I was tempted to call this, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Post-Modern Sea.” But that sounds deadly dull. And “post-modern” is the wrong word. So what’s the right one?

Let’s think ...

The play floods your eyes and ears with data. Your brain knows the sensory deluge is an illusion, but your imagination makes the connection anyway. (Waves, squid, submarine, whatever.) It’s a delightful experience. And one very familiar to Florida thrill-seekers.

Suzy Jane Hunt, Serafín Falcón and Marcel Jeannin. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman.

Of course; the play’s not post-modern. It’s a ride, and an excellent one at that.

While supplying plenty of twists and turns, the creators also encourage tech-savvy theatergoers to enhance their experience with a cell-phone app. The more committed can join a band of “New Atlanteans” on a quest to save Earth’s undersea life.

Sadly, the impending collapse of our oceanic ecosystems is no longer merely science fiction.

 

IF YOU GO

“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” runs through July 1, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org ‎for more information.

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