April 25, 2019

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Something new under the sea

Adaptation of Verne's classic novel provides aquatic amusement and adventure

Handout</p><p>Richard Clarkin, Jesse Nerenberg and Katie Melby in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.</p>

Handout

Richard Clarkin, Jesse Nerenberg and Katie Melby in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Apart from the original 1870 novel by Jules Verne, the most readily available delivery system for the science-fiction tale Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has long been the 1954 Disney movie. It’s the Cinemascope chestnut that saw lovable Canadian seaman Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) strum a guitar and harpoon a giant squid with equal measures of Canuck pluck. It’s rather grand, in its corny ’50s-sci-fi way, but it hasn’t aged especially well.

The leaves the door open for this well-travelled stage version from the folks who brought you Boom and Boom X. (The latter is currently on stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage and show creator Rick Miller is the co-creator and director of this one.) Like those shows, it uses projection technology, both sophisticated and simple, to embellish the fantastical elements of Verne’s tale of a giant submersible under the command of the megalomaniac Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin).

Coming in at half the running time of the movie — one hour, without intermission — it should be a relatively streamlined affair. But co-adapters Miller and Craig Francis build a convoluted frame around the story, focusing on the character of graduate student Jules (Jesse Nerenberg), who is writing his thesis project on how plastic pollution is strangling life in the world’s oceans.

From there, Jules (named after fantasist Verne, natch) hatches a plan to somehow travel back in time, contriving a way to get onboard Nemo’s mysterious vessel the Nautilus, and enlist the book’s antagonists — Nemo and Professor Aronnax (Katie Melby) to find a different ending to Verne’s story.

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Apart from the original 1870 novel by Jules Verne, the most readily available delivery system for the science-fiction tale Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has long been the 1954 Disney movie. It’s the Cinemascope chestnut that saw lovable Canadian seaman Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) strum a guitar and harpoon a giant squid with equal measures of Canuck pluck. It’s rather grand, in its corny ’50s-sci-fi way, but it hasn’t aged especially well.

The leaves the door open for this well-travelled stage version from the folks who brought you Boom and Boom X. (The latter is currently on stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage and show creator Rick Miller is the co-creator and director of this one.) Like those shows, it uses projection technology, both sophisticated and simple, to embellish the fantastical elements of Verne’s tale of a giant submersible under the command of the megalomaniac Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin).

Coming in at half the running time of the movie — one hour, without intermission — it should be a relatively streamlined affair. But co-adapters Miller and Craig Francis build a convoluted frame around the story, focusing on the character of graduate student Jules (Jesse Nerenberg), who is writing his thesis project on how plastic pollution is strangling life in the world’s oceans.

From there, Jules (named after fantasist Verne, natch) hatches a plan to somehow travel back in time, contriving a way to get onboard Nemo’s mysterious vessel the Nautilus, and enlist the book’s antagonists — Nemo and Professor Aronnax (Katie Melby) to find a different ending to Verne’s story.

So, yes, that’s an unnecessarily baffling addition to Verne’s narrative, and also an intrusive way to attach contemporary relevance to a story that is, admittedly, almost 150 years old.

Fortunately, it’s mostly a fun ride that isn’t above using lo-fi methods — hand shadow puppets and character action figures — to spike the adventure with a little cheeky levity. At times, the projected spectacle — projection designer is Winnipeg filmmaker Deco Dawson — is impressive. Other times, it has the goofy appeal of a sales rep inserting some naughty shadow puppetry into his PowerPoint presentation.

Nerenberg certainly allows himself to have the most fun playing multiple roles, including Ned and a salty sea captain. As the professor, Melby actually has the role that most resembles the stoic sci-fi hero of old, and she duly adopts that straight-arrow posture with just a hint of cheek.

Given that he’s in a play where most props and sets are projected images, Clarkin strives all the harder to give full weight to Captain Nemo, befitting the complexities and contradictions of the character. Nemo is, after all, a would-be saviour of humanity who also happens to despise humanity.

Giant squids notwithstanding, he is the guy who is most likely to compel young audiences to Jules Verne’s printed source material.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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