Inspiration is often random — the least likely sight or sound can set one down a creative path. That was the case when Lookingglass Theatre’s David Kersnar hit upon the idea of adapting Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
“Back in 2011, fellow ensemble member Phil Smith and I were sitting in the theater during a break,” Kersnar says. “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. I suggested a new adaptation of ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Seas’.”
A science fiction classic published in 1870, Verne’s tale tells of the search for a sea monster that turns out to be a remarkable submarine commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo. The novel has been adapted dozens of times for stage and screen; like many of us, Kersnar first got to know the story through the 1954 Disney film starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason.
Not surprisingly for an adventure story penned in the 19th century, Verne’s narrative is a male-dominated affair. While staying true to the author’s intention, Kersnar and writing partner Steve Pickering opted to make the narrator Arronax a woman. “We were inspired by Victorian writers who took on male nom de plumes so they could get published in a [man’s] world, like George Sand, whose real name was Amantine Dupin,” Kersnar says. “It gave us some fun things to play with and gives a different breadth and depth to the proceedings.”
While Kersnar isn’t out to totally recontextualize Verne’s novel, it’s hard not to see the story in a different light these days. “On an entertainment level, this story is the same thriller it’s been for over a century,” Kersnar says. “On a deeper level, the story has grown into a near-parable, in many ways more resonant to our world than to the world for which it was originally intended. We are able to do all of the things that Captain Nemo does and with considerably more firepower. So, wrestling with the moral responsibilities of science developed for destructive use is very clear and present for us in a way that, perhaps, it wasn’t in the 19th century.”
‘20,000 Leagues under The Seas’
Through Aug. 19, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan. For tickets (starting at $45), visit Lookingglasstheatre.org
Pictured at top: Kareem Bandealy as Captain Nemo