“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustav Flaubert
The very name Jules Verne evokes travel and adventure. His 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days was probably the most influential introduction to world culture for generations of readers and movie goers. With Mark Brown’s 21st century adaptation of the book to the stage, theater lovers get to share the adventure with the urgency of live performance. TheatreWorks vibrant production offers a delightful evening of fast paced action and humor delivered by a great ensemble of actors.
For the three or four of you out there who don’t know the basic proposition, our intrepid protagonist Phileas Fogg wagers his fellow London men’s club members that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. Not one to dawdle, he sets off on the voyage that very evening with his newly hired French valet, Passeportout. By all means of ground transport, the duo speeds through Europe, India, Japan, America and elsewhere in their effort to meet the deadline. But, no, they do not travel by what most of us think of as the glorious symbol of the trip, the hot air balloon. Why? Because the playwright chose to go by the book rather than the movie – a purist’s virtue which most would feel is misplaced, as the balloon provides sensual distinction and uniqueness that set it apart.
Live stage presentations lose the great scenic sweep that typifies travel motifs in movies unless wide-screen video is used in the live production. Yet, without resorting to video projections, one of the stars of this show is its staging, with scenic design by Joe Ragey. Visual representations of a turn-of-the-century French board game dominate the backdrop and sides of the stage. In muted colors and with a period look, the design depicts tens of world travel scenes. By adding representations of maps, props, and a little viewer imagination, fantasy prevails. Director Robert Kelley complements stage elements by extending action beyond the stage and extracting humor from actors’ movements as they are tossed about in typhoons and on runaway trains. He uses the pit cleverly as all matter of stuff from vultures to steam whistles are ejected or emitted from below.
One of the most unusual aspects of the play is its casting design, and one of the most successful aspects of this production is its casting. The playwright stipulates a cast of five, with permission to expand to as many as 39! Needless to say, having only five calls for actors to play multiple roles. Only Jason Kuykendall plays one – the stolid and resolute Fogg, ever logical and scientific. Three actors have a primary role. In a gender reversal, Tristan Cunningham plays Passepartout with exuberant flittery. Michael Gene Sullivan is the dogged Inspector Fix who follows Fogg’s every move, convinced he’s a thief, while Ajna Jai is Aouda, the Indian princess saved from an involuntary funeral pyre by Fogg. Finally, the formidable Ron Campbell, plays over 20 characters, looking like an Indian priest one minute, Buffalo Bill the next, and Captain Ahab following. Only a Groucho Marx routine was missing. With multiple dialect changes and physical manifestations, he masters each one with great hilarity that few actors could match.
At the publication of Verne’s novel, it read like a compendium of innovation and exposure to exotica. The U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, the Suez Canal, and the Bombay-to-Calcutta rail line, all of which make an appearance, had just been completed. Thomas Cook’s first global tourist treks were on offer. Thus, in its era, the novel was timely and revealing. But now, how does this fiction relate to us and our time? What lessons does it share? Perhaps it offers a window into history. Perhaps it provides us an exemplar of courage and determination and stimulates our own spirit of adventure. Or, perhaps it doesn’t matter. In any case, TheatreWorks’ staging is a testimony to entertaining story telling, stagecraft, and acting that deserves a place in the theatrical diet along with more sober and heartier fare.
Around the World in 80 Days adapted by Mark Brown from the novel by Jules Verne is produced by TheatreWorks and plays at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA through December 31, 2017.