by James Wilkinson
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Story by Matthew Woods. Written by the ensemble. Costume Design: Cotton Talbot-Minkin. Lighting Design: Christopher Bocchiaro. Set Concept and Sound Design: Matthew Woods. Scenic Design: Rebecca Lehrhoff. Puppet Design: Sophia Giordano and Rebecca Lehrhoff. Steampunk Consultant: Isaiah Plovnic. Choreography Kiki Samko. Presented by imaginary Beasts at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St, Charlestown, through February 4
It can be a wonderful thing to have all of your theatrical expectations totally upended. Having seen Imaginary Beasts’ Winter Panto, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, let me start by admitting how ashamed I am that I have never been to one of their previous Winter Pantos, an annual event since 2009. In fact, when I walked into this production I really had no understanding of what a pantomime was. Back in elementary school I read a Great Illustrated Classic’s version of Jules Verne’s classic novel, so I had a vague idea of what the plot of the show would be, but that was it. About thirty seconds into the show, I realized that it wasn’t at all going to be what I thought it would be. Five minutes in, I had a giant smile plastered on my face that didn’t leave for the entire run time of the show. If you’re looking for an activity to make you forget about the freezing temperatures outside, then I can’t recommend this inspired bit of theatrical lunacy enough.
It seems odd that pantomimes never caught on in the United States as well as they did in their native Britain, as they seem to be a kind of theatrical cousin to vaudeville. For those who (like me), may be unfamiliar with the art form, pantos are a kind of family entertainment that are often based on well-known fairy/folk tales and blend together slapstick humor, musical numbers, topical humor, cross-dressing, running gags, and basically everything but the kitchen sink. Audience members follow the adventures of a group of stock characters and are encouraged to sing along, cheer the heroes and boo the villains.
Imaginary Beasts’ production isn’t an adaptation in the strictest sense of the word. If you’re familiar with the original novel then you’ll notice some familiar characters like Captain Nemo and Ned Land, but under director Matthew Woods, the company is really just using the premise of Verne’s work as an excuse to bring together their ragtag group of characters and send them off on an undersea adventure; at one point in the show you will audibly hear Jules Verne turn over in his grave, (no easy feat seeing as he’s buried in France). This version of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea follows a young boy and his pet cat (Kim Lasner and Molly Kimmerling), a beach bum version of Ned Land (Bob Mussett), Professor Aronnax and his daughter, Constanze (William Schuller and Jamie Semel), and a loved-starved French woman, Zsa Zsa Faux Pas (Noah Simes) as they set out on a voyage to find a sea monster that has been destroying ships. Along the way, they fall into the clutches of Captain Nemo (Kiki Samko) and the Demon Queen Blanche (Sarah Gazdowicz), a half woman, half lobster, sea god. I won’t spoil it from there as the joy of the piece comes from watching this assemblage of characters let loose on each other.
The biggest and most important take away from the show is just how much fun the whole experience is. The company members are clearly having a blast hamming it up for the audience and their enjoyment is absolutely infectious. Since so much of the show depends on the audience’s (literal) cheer and jeers, there’s a kind of infinite loop of energy created in the performance space as the actors feed off the audience who feed off the actors who feed off the audience, etc. etc. It helps that the design team has created a beautiful candy-colored steam punk inspired world for us all to spend time in. Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s costumes, Rebecca Lehrhoff’s set and Christopher Bocchiaro’s lights all come together to create a wonderful theatrical playground.
Director Matthew Woods has done a great job balancing the tone of the piece to just the right level. For a show as farcical as this it would be easy for all of the various elements to spin out of control, but Woods has managed to pull back and give the show just enough shape that it never becomes one note or overstays its welcome. In remains a wonderful journey for the audience to spend an evening with. Sit down, strap in and before you know it, you’ll be asking if you can ride it again. For tickets and more information, visit Imaginary Beasts’ website at: www.imaginarybeasts.org