Director Ryan Underbakke’s interactive new adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” takes place in some dimly lit basement hallways and rooms under the stage of the Children’s Theatre, where it premiered Friday.
The high-octane, well-acted show teems with atmospheric and environmental stimuli, from the groan of an underwater elevator to loopy pings and plinks, all of which help to immerse us in the fresh, inventive submarine action.
While Verne’s classic has been often adapted, this “20,000 Leagues” is a thrilling 45-minute production that is worth its weight in adrenaline.
Ahead of the show’s opening, Underbakke and his creative team made it clear that their aim was to deliver audience members into something akin to an action movie or a video game. They wanted us to feel like actors, not just spectators, in the unfolding narrative, and they said the audience would determine the end of the story by majority vote between sacred principle and self-preservation.
They have largely succeeded with a show that preps the audience with jumping jacks and that keeps the heart racing throughout.
The sense of adventure begins the moment we are ushered from a blue-lit hallway into a briefing room where we, designated as ensigns, are taught a salute for Gen. Hinton (Gerald Drake). He informs us of our mission. It is to capture Capt. Nemo, commander of the monster-hunting submarine the Nautilus.
Nemo (the authoritative, pitch-perfect Jane Froiland) is the bane of, and boon to, humanity. In the years she has been at sea, with a crew that may include kidnapped scholars and mates, Nemo’s advanced craft has sunk vessels serving under a dozen different flags, with a death count of 1,136 naval officers.
On the upside, though, she also is the best person humanity has in its fight against deep-sea monsters. (Verne’s novel was published in 1870, 19 years after “Moby-Dick.”)
Our guides on this adventure are Cmdr. Lowshack (the forceful and potent Meghan Kreidler, who alternates with Isabel Nelson in the physically and emotionally intense role) and Dr. Helio Mathis (Matt Spring alternates with Brant Miller). Underbakke’s stripped-down adaptation also includes Prof. Arronax (a very cool and coolly calculating Dean Holt) and Nautilus first mate Pius Alquis (played creepily and with a Russian accent by Reed Sigmund). Some crew members look like extras from “The Walking Dead.”
The action never loses its intensity, even when a little tyke in the audience says something honest and of-the-moment that breaks spectators into smiles.
Surprises abound in Underbakke’s engaging production, which lands at a time when interactivity is everywhere in the culture, from social media to how we watch television. Theater has been trying to latch onto the trend, partly with promenade productions. Underbakke and his supporters at the Children’s Theatre have figured it out. Their production of “20,000 Leagues” is not a gimmicky trick. Everything, from the video design to the excellent performances, conspires to deliver us excitingly into the story.
It’s a short show that never lets up and seems full — partly because audience members do a lot of running. Everyone should run to get tickets to this production. “20,000 Leagues” is well worth the sprint.