High Adventure and High Seas at Asolo Rep

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 9, 2017

It’s high adventure on—and below—the high seas with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, onstage tonight at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Written by Craig Francis and Rick Miller, who also directs, this modern adaptation of the Jules Verne classic introduces new characters and an eco-conscious bend, using tricks both old and new to bring the adventure to the stage, all the while taking audience interaction to a whole new level. “We want everything we’ve added to the story to be as innovative as Jules was with the technology at the time,” says Miller.

Fans of the novel since childhood and looking to push the boundaries of theatrical special effects, Twenty Thousand Leagues provided the perfect fit for Miller and Francis, but also its own particular challenges both theoretical—how to make Captain Nemo’s story relevant—and practical—how in the world they would convincingly portray an impossible submarine and its giant squid antagonist onstage.

“We jumped at it, but did not want to just retell a story about 1867,” says Miller, and the decision was made to introduce some time-traveling to the narrative and inject a modern perspective in the form of a present-day oceanography PhD student aptly named Jules, who finds himself thrust into one of his favorite childhood stories. “Without getting heavy about it, we want to touch on water issues of today,” says Miller, “to encourage the audience to think about water differently and more aware of the effects we have.” But the story is still at heart an adventure, and though Jules may relate to the captain’s love of the ocean, but also must deal with Nemo’s growing madness and the danger it brings.

Nobody expects computer-generated Hollywood special effects when they go to the theater, but when they go to see a story called Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea they expect to see a giant squid. Unable to book a live one for the production (and similarly unable to obtain a life-size replica of a nonexistent submarine), Miller made do with his theatrical bag of tricks, bringing everything to bear from shadow puppets and traditional set dressing to video and immersive sound in order to realize Vernes’ vision. The audience will know it’s in a theater, but that just makes the ensuing transportation that much more impressive. “That is what theater can do when you spend enough time,” says Miller. “It’s not CGI, but there is a sense of wonder you get when this stuff happens in front of you.”

And bringing a new dimension to the production, audience members are encouraged to bring their phones to the theater and keep them on, albeit on silent. By downloading the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea app to their phone before the show, audience members can access story and character information prior to the show, receive periodic alerts throughout the show and keep tabs on happenings during intermission.

Onstage now at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea runs through July 1.

Pictured: Suzy Jane Hunt, Rick Miller and Marcel Jeannin in "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea" at the New Victory Theatre. Photo by Robert Altman.

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