In Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days, an Englishman races across continents on a bet. He hops on trains, ships and even an elephant. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the adaptation of the novel currently at Stage West does all that but with only one set and five actors.
- Star-Telegram review
- Front Row review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
Playwright Mark Brown adapted Jules Verne’s novel by stripping away the exotic locations and peoples we normally think of as the story’s main appeal — certainly they’re what the many film and mini-series adaptations have trafficked in. At Stage West, instead, Paul Taylor plays Phileas Fogg, the globe-hopping Englishman, while Jakie Cabe is his French and freshly-hired manservant, Passepartout. And everyone else – the diplomats and newsboys, sailors and generic foreigners – are played by just three other actors.
As much as Verne pioneered science-fiction, much of his appeal — in such novels as Around the World, Five Weeks in a Balloon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — came from making geography exciting. When Around the World came out in 1873, it was more or less a travel novel (with a chase to heighten the watch-the-clock suspense of Fogg’s wager). It’s a travel novel about cutting-edge, Victorian technology: railway timetables, sea charts and steam engines.
[sounds of hurried steps onstage]
Carissa Jade Olsen: “Phileas Fogg and Passepartout board the Dover train at Charing Cross. And five minutes later, at –
Paul Taylor: “8:55.” [train whistle]
Cliff Stephens: “The whistle sounds!”
Dwight Greene: “The train pulls out of the station – “ [sounds of locomotive starting up]
Olsen: “And Phileas Fogg begins his journey – “
All: “Around the world!”
But Brown’s stage adaptation works as a comic adventure because Verne’s novel is also about how the British Empire had made the world more like itself. A true Englishman like Fogg – vigorous, punctual, polite – could be a true Englishman anywhere, provided he pretty much ignored his surroundings and treated Calcutta and Yokohama as if they were just rather unusual parts of London. As Fogg’s fellow London club members point out at the start — in the argument that leads to Fogg’s bet — such ‘globalization’ is optimistic and encouraging (a thief can’t run and hide so easily anymore) but it also diminishes the planet. Small world, innit? They don’t say this, but it represents the quintessential, colonial shrinkage of geography and culture. What was often called “bringing civilization to the natives” is hailed here, for example, in the reported completion of a trans-India railway link (no need to dally with the Hindus any longer), a report that turns out to be premature.
The ‘universality’ of Fogg’s British values — his obliviousness to anything but his timing and his tailoring — is the basis of the show’s humor. He’s set against all the cartoon foreigners — from the Americans and our yee-haw belligerence to Passepartout’s over-excited Frenchiness (Cabe’s French accent is zo ovair zee tup it would make Peetair Sellairs bloosh and flooter avay lahk a myth). Nothing disturbs or changes Fogg’s imperturbability– until, of course, he meets the requisite, exotic love interest, Aouda (Carissa Jade Olsen).
But as devised by Brown, this Around the World is also one of those deliberately bare-bones productions that uses simple stage magic to conjure up its settings and characters (think: Travels with My Aunt). This is a play, after all, about resourcefulness, so the actors must seem to invent everything as they go along — in a kind of easy-access version of traditional, avant-garde theatricality.
That’s the desired effect, anyway. I saw a production three years ago at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre, a stylish and ingenious affair with a bare wood stage, backed by a painted map of the earth. And that was it. Even the elephant was built with all they had at hand, just a few chairs and steamer trunks. It was like watching Pilobolus with props, assembling one of their dancer-constructions.
In contrast, at Stage West, director Jerry Russell has had set designer Jen Schultes and prop manager Lynn Lovett clutter things up with stairs and desks and baskets and railings and globes and windsocks and potted plants. All these helpful items actually just reduce the show’s theatricality, making it more like an ordinary, clunky, cheap-feeling play.
All in all, not the best-thought-out Stage West production. Simpler (and smarter), in this case, would have played better. The show does pick up steam, thanks to actor Cliff Stephens’ comic characterizations. But it never really sent me … around the world.