Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea sets sail with theatrical magic
by Drew Rowsome -
"Is that real water?" gasps the little girl behind me. And it does indeed appear that the stage is awash with roiling waves, the actors perched on the bow of a ship. Though there is no attempt to pretend that this is anything but artifice, it is theatrical magic. And only one of many collective gasps of sheer delight to come.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea begins with a fantastical fusion of low-tech puppetry and high-tech projections. Our narrator, an engaging Andrew Shaver, sets the stage with a witty and very droll backstory that, with the addition of time travel, morphs into a version of Jules Verne's classic tale. Visually, steam punk being the main motif, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is extraordinary. The Nautilus's interior is opulent with portholes that reveal wonders. A visit to Antarctica creates shivers and, when the stage fills with glowing jellyfish, a meandering shark and a hungry angler fish, that word again: magic.
In the midst of such splendour, the story and characters suffer. There is an attempt at an ecological theme to tie everything together though, other than the intro and the extro, it is never otherwise much explored. Themes pile upon themes: science vs fiction, father issues, the pursuit of power, theatre vs reality, narrative theatre vs performance art, etc, etc. Finally, after the second act has slowed to a crawl due to so much philosophizing, Shaver (who blessedly does occasionally get to break character and crack jokes) announces it is time to "Bring on the giant squid."
The squid's arrival, which we have all be eagerly awaiting, is powerful and ominous, the battle scene more giggles than terror. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea feels like it is one workshop, one edit, away from being brilliant. By the next time we see it, the entire production should be as snappy and riveting as the first act. Both Mirvish and The Storefront Theatre were in attendance, so Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will undoubtedly have a second life: it is too unique, clever and delicious to sink out of sight.
Most of the cast and creatives have ties to theatre superstar Robert Lepage (Needles and Opium, Totem) and his influence is felt both in the startling and vivid coups du théâtre, and the second act's languorous mid-section. Co-creators Rick Miller (Venus in Fur) and Craig Francis are both comedic and conceptual geniuses and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an experience as much as it is theatre. Despite my ambivalence towards the Pan Am Games hoopla, the cultural side, Panamania, is off to a gold medal start. There are only, alas, four performances left: don't let this ship sail without climbing aboard.