For the past several seasons, Asolo Rep has headed into the summer with a “family” production, which is a stretchy enough definition to include all sorts of entertainment. A production could be family-friendly—varied enough in its approach to please almost everyone in the group regardless of age—or more of a kids’ show, aimed at those in their tweens or under.
I’d say this summer’s show, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, fits more into the latter category. This loose adaptation by Craig Francis and Rick Miller of the classic Jules Verne novel--fast-moving and not given to nuance--feels bound to work more successfully for the younger set rather than those adults bringing them into the theater.
That’s partly because of its multimedia visual approach, designed to tap into the minds of today’s technologically avid kids. (Although Verne himself would certainly have been delighted to see all the bells and whistles here.)
The show actually starts pretty low-tech; we meet Jules (Brendan McMahon), a graduate student who decides to take us on his own version of Verne’s tale with the use of some action figures and a little table he wheels around, inserting different background scenes. But it soon swings into more sophisticated imagery, as Deco Dawson’s projections, Richard Feren’s sound design, and puppets by Shawn Kettner and Marcus Jamin help us feel we’re really on a ship, or even deep undersea in Captain Nemo’s famous Nautilus submarine.
You can feel the waves lapping the stage, hear the seagulls cawing, and be caught up in the effects of a storm or a fight quite dramatically. Thanks to the show’s concept and design, it only takes four actors to bring Verne’s multi-character story to life here; besides McMahon, there’s Marcel Jeannin as tough harpooner Ned Land, Serafin Falcon as Nemo, and Suzy Jane Hunt as a female version of the book’s original narrator, Professor Aronnax.
Here, though, the narrator is Jules, a 21st-century man who brings his cell phone aboard the 1868 voyage. He hopes to steer the story in his own fashion, but amid all the rapid action and some of the longer speeches, kids may find themselves confused about exactly what Jules wants to accomplish, or what the motivations of the exile Nemo ultimately are.
That doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the “gee whiz” aspects of the production, which can be pretty cool. And they’ll probably enjoy the occasional broad humor here more than their parents, too, while hopefully still getting some kind of message about the importance and vulnerability of our seas and the need to work together to protect them.
The production continues through July 1 in the Mertz Theatre; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.