Did you know there is NO hot air balloon in this story? None! I was shocked! Shocked I tell you! Once again, the silver screen has warped our conception of classic literature – or at least mine. Hollywood: You lie!
Now that that’s off my chest, Flat Rock Playhouse’s current production is a charming, humorous and innovative retelling of the Jules Verne novel. A cast of just five talented actors portray more than 30 parts as Phileas Fogg (Brendan Powers) makes his famed sojourn around the globe by way of ship and train. Think the Reduced Shakespeare Company trades in its sex jokes and some of its irreverence for bigger staging and a more cohesive story line.
The play begins, more or less, with the wager: twenty thousand pounds against Phileas Fogg’s being able to circumnavigate the earth in 80 days or fewer. Fogg sets out with his exceedingly French servant, the Harry-Potter-esquely-named Passepartout (Bill Muñoz), fully confident in his tight schedule and capacity to cope with any potential obstacles. As might be expected, obstacles are not to be short in supply.
The overreaching conflict is created as Fogg leaves town just as an unknown bank robber goes on the lam; suspicions about Fogg quickly surface, and Detective Fix (Brian Robinson) is on the case, tracking Fogg and Passepartout at their every move. Passepartout and Fix have innumerable run-ins, and Passepartout becomes convinced that Fix has been hired to prevent Fogg’s traveling success so that he will lose his bet. Along the way, they encounter many colorful characters and find themselves in a variety of, dare I say, hijinks, including – but far from limited to – saving an Indian woman, Aouda (Lisa K. Bryant) from ritualistic human sacrifice, commandeering an elephant after missing an important train departure, and joining forces with a Yosemite Sam sort of fellow (Willie Repoley) to fight off attacking Native Americans, whom Repoley’s character commands that they “go back to their own country!”
Needless to say, despite the decided lack of aerial transport, Fogg accomplishes his mission and wins his bet, though it is never smooth … sailing. And, all told, everyone has played at least one character who wins in the end.
With the exception of a few moments or arcs that really seemed to drag (the problem seemed more script-related than anything else), this show maintains an infectious high energy and a great deal of nearly cartoonish physical characterization from all actors. It is, in fact, primarily their movement and some well-used trunks and chairs which create most of the locales and sense of travel in the show. Watch especially for the building of the elephant: pretty much a guaranteed smile-getter. The rest of the stage picture is beautifully created in golds and sepia tones by scenic and costume designers Dennis C. Maulden and Bridget Bartlett, respectively, with whimsical sound design by Joel Thompson. A fine ensemble effort from both onstage and backstage.
Around the World in 80 Days at Flat Rock Playhouse. Through Sunday, Sept. 27. Shows Wednesday, Sept. 16 through Saturday, Sept. 20; and Friday, Sept. 25 through Sunday, Sept. 27. See www.flatrockplayhouse.org for full schedule. Tickets $30.