I’m not quite sure how a submarine crew would smell after traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea, but as a couple of dozen kids, parents, and grandparents packed into a freight elevator at the Children’s Theatre Company on an 88-degree July day, the collective odor certainly gave the air an authentically salty tint.
We were on a quest to conquer the Nautilus, an undersea vessel powered by technology vastly beyond anything known to man. It’s only known to woman: Captain Nemo, to be precise. In the CTC’s interactive adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, Jane Froiland channels Battlestar Galactica‘s Starbuck as a gender-swapped incarnation of the mad genius at the center of the classic story.
Despite its literary inspiration, this new production by Ryan Underbakke and Nick Ryan is an unapologetically trashy entertainment that aims to bring the audience inside an action-packed quest beneath the sea. The role of the Nautilus is played by the theater itself: in what theater staff refer to as an “experience,” the audience at each “launch” of the mission makes its way to the venue’s basement, where actors and effects create the impression of a desperate struggle in the briny depths.
The show packs a lot of excitement into its 45-minute running time: there’s a top-secret briefing with a one-eyed general (Gerald Drake, chewing the scenery with relish), there’s an encounter with an eerily humanoid artificial intelligence, there are fistfights and power outages and portentous conversations overheard down long corridors. The mission leaders (Isabel Nelson and Matt Spring, at the performance I attended) keep the tone of the adventure at urgent bordering on frantic; kids (and, to somewhat amusing effect, adults) have to hustle to keep up with them.
Like the Guthrie’s recent Relics—but to far greater effect—this show benefits from a level of production design that’s not typically seen at such intimate, interactive, inventive shows. The sets add a layer of weathered detail to the basement corridors and rooms, which feel much like the bowels of a ship to begin with; and Jorge Cousineau’s multimedia design is polished enough even to impress blockbuster-jaded tweens (whether or not they’ll admit it).
20,000 Leagues is effectively disorienting in much the same way that the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement is, and similarly conceived to turn a simple subterranean space into a heart-pounding thrill ride; while it’s nowhere near as disturbing as that gory scare-fest, it’s intense enough that you should take the theater’s recommendation to think twice before bringing kids who haven’t hit third grade yet. If you have an eight-to-twelve-year-old, though, and you’re looking for escapist summer fun that sparks rather than deadens the imagination, then by all means: take the plunge.