Playhouse on Park romps AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS through October 2
Around the World in 80 Days
Adapted by Mark Brown
From the novel by Jules Verne
Directed by Russell Treyz
at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through October 2
Grab your ticket and hop aboard Around the World in 80 Days, a giddy, globe-trotting romp currently playing at West Hartford's Playhouse on Park. Adapted directly from Jules Verne's 1873 novel by playwright/actor Mark Brown, there is nary a balloon in sight as made famous in the Academy Award-winning 1956 film version starring David Niven and Mexican comedian Cantinflas. Verne's adventure follows the British Phileas Fogg and his French manservant Passepartout (whose name translates roughly to "passes everywhere") as they race around the world to win a wager. They travel by boat, train, elephant and a modified sleigh, but true to the book, not by balloon. This is not missed, however, as Playhouse on Park's production, directed by Russell Treyz, is already light as air.
Despite the novelist's penchant for science fiction, Around the World in 80 Days is a classic Victorian tale that indulges in the era's love of travel and exotic locales. Starting in England at the Reform Club, a men's club for effete and powerful Londoners, Fogg (played by Russell Garrett) enters into a bet that he cannot circumnavigate the globe in the titular 80 days. Enlisting his newly-engaged valet, Passepartout (portrayed by Aiden O'Shea), Fogg sets off immediately with little baggage and enormous fondness for punctuality. They are tailed on their travels by the dogged Detective Fix (Chris Mixon) who believes Fogg to be a notorious criminal.
Their journey around the world leads the trio to collide with trials, tribulations, close getaways and a multitude of colorful characters played by O'Shea and Mixon, as well as Jef Canter and Veronique Hurley. Only Garrett, conscripted to play the stiff-as-a-board Fogg, plays one character. Brown's script distills the novel's cast of thousands to several dozen roles that are distributed across the four other actors. It is a testament to their flexibility and tirelessness that they are called to play not only humans, but also animals like a seagull, a monkey and a panther.
A spiritual cousin to the recent Broadway hit comedy The 39 Steps, Brown's Around the World in 80 Days becomes a tour-de-farce for the troupe of performers who must switch costumes and accents at lightning speed. With a fairly Spartan set designed by Bob Phillips, a map of the globe serves as the downstage wall and a blue floor, set pieces and props are brought on and off the stage lickety-split. With a two-and-a-half hour running time, the production lags a bit in the first act when it feels like it should be more fleet, especially for a farce. According to Variety, the original production clocked in at 1 hour and 55 minutes (while the playscript distributor lists the running time as two hours). How the Playhouse on Park version adds an additional 30 minutes is not certain - perhaps the addition of an intermission or additional material by the playwright? No doubt as the actors continue their run through October 2 and tighten the pacing, the running time may shorten.
All of the actors are exemplary in their parts. Garrett displays the right amount of starch as the uppercrust and mysterious Fogg. In Act 2, Garrett paces Fogg's emotional maturation beautifully and realistically. Hurley makes a touching Aouda and has fun with her many other roles. Mixon is a delight as the exasperated detective Fix whose name is routinely mangled by the other cast members. Jef Canter has the most varied roles (as a human, anyway) and does a winning job throughout (particularly with his Liverpudlian accent and as a rootin' tootin' gunslinger).
Undoubtedly, the finest performance is rendered by Aiden O'Shea as the acrobatic Passepartout. With handsprings, handstands, flips and other contortions, he is as agile with his body as he is with his comic lines. The play now and then requires the actors to embody some fairly bold stereotypes in this age of political correctness. You could feel the audience recoil somewhat at the stereotypes, but these are certainly fitting for Verne's period writing and a daffy farce. Anyone who takes too much umbrage at the silliness should probably stay at home and watch Masterpiece Theatre.
The cast, ably directed by Russell Treyz, are aided and abetted by PoP's design team. Costume designer Jennifer Raskoff has created authentic Victorian period wear. The script requires her to add Indian garb, Chinese fabrics, Wild West wear and an Indian headdress. She handles it all beautifully. The lighting design by Will Lowry is apt and flows quickly alongside the lightning-quick action, no easy feat. Funny sound effects are added by the cast and, most likely, the team of hardworking stage crew hidden in the theatre's nooks and crannies.
Kicking off Playhouse on Park's third season, Around the World in 80 Days is a strong beginning to their year and a fine harbinger of things to come. With an intriguing season ahead, it will be interesting to watch this company continue to grow. Like any wager, starting a theatre during a down economy is a risky bet. Hopefully Greater Hartfordites will place their money on Fogg, Passepartout and Playhouse on Park.
Photo by Rich Wagner.