While at times muddying the action that is supposed to taking place or allowing zaniness to go a tad unbridled, director Russell Treyz grants quarter to cogent, cohesive storytelling in his production of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
In adapting Jules Verne’s fanciful tale of the obstacles that arise when the redoubtably formidable hero, Phileas Fogg (Richard B. Watson), attempts an arduous mission made more difficult by having to complete the journey in a strictly precise period of time or risk losing a fortune, Mark Brown anticipates Maria Aitken’s much-copied approach to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Brown mixes theatrical anarchy with dramatic substance, remaining faithful to Verne throughout his script.
The play begins exactly where Verne’s novel does, with Fogg dismissing his otherwise flawless butler for bringing him shaving water heated to 84 degrees instead of the required temperature of 86. At his St. James refuge, The Reform Club, Fogg comments about a newspaper item that says with the new and faster means of transportation, better international infrastructure, and various transport schedules at one’s disposal, a person could span the world in a minimum of 80 days. Fogg wagers a fortune (£20,000 in 1872 pounds, perhaps $5 million today) that he can accomplish that feat. He informs his new valet, Passepartout (Brad DePlanche), an outspoken Frenchman who looked forward to a quiet, leisurely life that they are off for a London to London journey with stops in India, Singapore, China, San Francisco, and New York. To give the story a scooch more urgency, Verne adds a plot by which Fogg is suspected of being a daring bank robber and is tailed by an inept but persevering detective (Eric Hissom) who wants to arrest Fogg at the soonest possible instant.
Lightheartedness prevails. Except for the unflappably punctilious Fogg, every character is good for a jig, pratfall, or egregious bit of clowning. Christopher Patrick Mullen has a grand time playing a pirate complete with patch and a parrot on his shoulder, a customs official, and various natives, soldiers, and shipmates while Eric Hissom portrays a similar collection of zanies that include the dogged Detective Fix, an elephant owner, and a priest who objects vehemently to Passepartout entering an ancient religious temple in his shoes. DePlanche is more the Curly among the clown group. His Passepartout is always discombobulated over something, consequential or not, and tends to explode into fits of worry and puzzlement over the tribulations he encounters.
In the midst of all of this folderol, Richard B. Watson retains an admirable calm as Phileas Fogg. Whether under fire or under arrest, Fogg never seems stressed, unprepared, or flustered. He sails through all adversity, coolly handling all potential obstacles with the unfrazzled hauteur of a English gentleman. Watson is remarkable in holding Fogg’s fastidious line, and even better in conveying his affection for a woman, conducting a romance, and arranging a marriage.He shows joy and sentiment while maintaining his aloof, commanding demeanor. It is amusing to see him move calmly through a scene in which Mullen, Hissom, and DePlanche are in high gear and shticking up a schtorm.
Anita Vasan rounds out the cast charmingly as Aouda, the young woman Fogg and Passepartout risk all to save from her husband’s funeral pyre. Vasan shows Aouda’s piercing intelligence and signals her affection for Watson’s Fogg in subtle and significant ways that go beyond gratitude or a sense of obligation.
Mullen and Hissom receive a great assist from costume designer Amy Best who shows a lot of wit in choosing the various get-ups in which the pair will play their multiple characters. Mullen’s excellent pirate is the tip of a large iceberg. The set by Bob Philips and Samantha Vieth serves as many locales, with project maps and other visuals, desks, tables, chairs, and even a shack to materializing opportunely. All of the actors are aided by a running crew that gets everything set up with the speed necessary.
The pace is feverish. Treyz’s production is solidly a comedy, and jokes may at times cause havoc to the pace, but he sees to it that serious, sentimental, romantic, and dramatic moments get their due. The fine points of Verne’s narrative shine through the vaudeville. Read the full review >> [Schubert Stage of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Arts Center of DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA] June 17-July 12, 2015; pashakespeare.org.