All Things Entertaining and Cultural
While at times muddying the action that is supposed to taking place or allowing zaniness to go a tad unbridled, director Russell Treyz grants enough quarter to cogent, cohesive storytelling that his production of “Around the World for 80 Days” for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival avoids the excesses and cavalier flagrancy that have fatally marred several recent shows that sought to marry mystery or adventure with farce and neglected to invite the mystery or adventure to the wedding.
Treyz succeeds where Matt Pfeiffer and Scott Schwartz so miserably failed because he and his cast, as frisky and as inventive as Pfeiffer’s or Schwartz’s, obviously respect Jules Verne’s fanciful tale of the obstacles that arise when one 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.
The star of Treyz’s production remains “Around the World in 80 Days.” Whatever hijinks he and his ensemble cook up, and Christopher Patrick Mullen and Eric Hissom are quite resourceful at comic mayhem, he keeps you aware of the situation at hand and how it can affect the financial well-being of Verne’s redoubtably formidable hero, Phileas Fogg. Farcical elements entertain and leaven tension rather than obliterate it or ignore suspense and concern for characters. Treyz and his audience understand “Around the World” is going to be primarily a comedy, and jokes may at times cause havoc to the pace of the overall production, but Treyz also sees to it that serious, sentimental, romantic, and dramatic moments get their due. Plot, emotion, and apprehension are not abandoned, willfully or otherwise. The fine points of Verne’s narrative, as adapted by Mark Brown, shine through the vaudeville. Treyz and crew emphasize the silliness in the predicaments in which Fogg and company find themselves, but they do it while preserving the bravado, cleverness, and bow to ingenuity that is also intrinsic to Verne’s text.
Yes, lightheartedness prevails. Except for the unflappably punctilious Phileas Fogg, every character is good for a jig, pratfall, or egregious bit of clowning. Brad DePlanche, as Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, depends on this to vindicate his frantic obsessing and mugging when calamity strikes. In a pinch, though, Treyz and cast can quell all of the buffoonery and high spirits and settle in to create a taut moment or pressure-filled scene, such as when a train has to leap over a broken segment of bridge or Fogg insists on rescuing a woman from a brutal ritual. Farce and fun might be the predominating recipe, but not at the expense of attention to details or basic storytelling. Through all of the tomfoolery, “Around the World in 80 Days” emerges as soberly and meticulously as a Phileas Fogg agenda. To that, I say “Tnank goodness,” and give Treyz high marks for showing less conscientious, less able, or more probably willing, directors the way to survive this “39 Steps” era when no mystery or thriller is immune from being distorted out of all proportion by gratuitous jokes and slapstick that, even when funny, as in Pfeiffer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” for Lantern, scuttle the model for an unrelated, disrespectful marathon of random yuks.
“Around the World in 80 Days” predates Maria Aitken’s much-copied approach to “The 39 Steps.” Brown found the formula for mixing theatrical anarchy with dramatic substance at least a decade before Aitken worked her magic with Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of John Buchan’s piece as made popular by Alfred Hitchcock. Brown’s cunning take on Verne found welcome at just about every American regional theater and enjoyed a previous incarnation at Pennsylvania Shakespeare.
Brown is faithful to Verne throughout his script. He minces nothing. He mitigates nothing. His play, “Around the World in 80 Days” 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. It follows through with Fogg, now at his St. James refuge, The Reform Club, commenting 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. Fellow members of Fogg’s London club are so incredulous at the reported calculation, they deem an 80-day excursion round the world to be impossible and foolish to attempt. Fogg promptly wagers £20,000 (even more a fortune in 1872 than it is today) that he can accomplish that feat. Accepted, he leaves the club, consults international rail and shipping schedules, and informs his new valet, Passepartout, an outspoken Frenchman who looked forward to a quiet, leisurely life considering the regulated existence the habit-driven Fogg led, that they are off for a London to London journey with key stops in India, Singapore, China, San Francisco, and New York en route. 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 who wants to arrest Fogg at the soonest possible instant.
In Treyz’s production it isn’t only the discomfited Passepartout who gets the signal he and Fogg are off to the races. In the two hours or so it take of unwind Fogg’s tale, the director sets a quartet of performers into non-stop dudgeon while only Richard B. Watson, as the imperturbable Fogg, gets to sail through the drama/farce with self-possessed composure and cool reasoning.
It’s hard to nominate one clown that supersedes the other in Treyz’s staging. 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.
The pace is feverish, so much so Mullen and Hissom don’t attempt to maintain a measurable beat but hold your attention with how quickly and creatively they change character, how much liberty they take with each new portrayal, and how hilarious they are in carrying out their farcical duties.
DePlanche, as Passepartout, has a more frantic time of it, especially when he tries to indulge some of his own tastes and interests while traveling while needing to fulfill the precisely expressed wishes of his employer, Fogg.
In watching the three of him, Mullen is the most deliberate of the comics, the one who has his rhythm down and has orchestrated his mayhem to the furthest degree that could be accomplished. Mullen is as spontaneous as Hissom or DePlanche, but he seems to have his act more compact and polished. All of Mullen’s characters had style and distinction, but my favorites were the pirate and the frontier army officer whose exploits might come under some politically correct fire today.
Hissom always give the impression of being inspired to go further with a bit than he did the last time he performed it, or the time before that. Hissom obviously loves the range of his characters and want to give each some definition while using any occasion for farce to erupt into an antic disposition. Hissom is one of those comics who makes you wait with eager expectation to see what he is going to do next. He always has a mischievous glint in his eye that warns you he’s up to more than he’s showing at the moment and is about to take his bit to a new plane.
Both Mullen and Hissom are quite physical in their performances. At one juncture, when Mullen is still and listening to another, you can see his diaphragm swelling and exhaling from the effort that was needed for the previous scene.
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. Though most of the time, he is one big overblown reaction, Passepartout can prove to be as resourceful as McGyver in a dangerous or perplexing situation.
DePlanche seems to be the most random is his bag of tricks while Mullen relies on strong characterization that includes gymnastics and physical comedy and Hissom is the grand entertainer standing in front of you like a magician, about to delight you but not cuing you as to how he’s going to manage making his impression until the moment is right to reveal the next crazy idea up his sleeve.
In the midst of all of this folderol, Richard B. Watson retains an admirable but almost unnatural calm as Phileas Fogg. Whether under fire or under arrest, Watson’s Fogg never seems stressed, unprepared, or flustered. Just as Fogg keeps a schedule that narrows all activities down to the minute, and that contains strict instructions on the temperature of his shaving water, he sails through all adversity, coolly handling all potential obstacles with the unfrazzled hauteur of a English gentleman. Fogg is so much is control, he keeps his equanimity even when he is tells his entourage they have to delay their journey because it is their duty to rescue a young woman about to be sacrificed to the spirit of her deceased husband, nonchalantly fights off Indians, Asian and Native American, when they attack his troop, or obediently endures a court process to prove he is no thief.
Fogg can show disdain or disapproval, but he never allows himself the folly of being upset. Even as he faces losing his £20,000 wager, he maintains unadulterated stiff-upper-lip in defeat.
Watson is remarkable in the way he holds Fogg’s fastidious line.
Even better, within Fogg’s bounds of rigidity and regularity, Watson can convey him having affection for a woman, conducting a romance, and arranging a marriage. Watson’s Fogg can show 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.
Lots of acting styles and techniques are seen in Treyz’s “Around the World,” but, amazingly, none of them clash. If anything, Hissom and Mullen complement each other, seeming to be sensitive to each other’s timing and style, while DePlanche is right to be in Passepartout’s own little world filled with frustration, intrigue, and a knack for ultimately getting things done. As superficial as Passepartout can be, you feel for him and believe his dismay when, still too affected to move, he realizes his overindulged himself in a Chinese opium den and will never muster the strength or physical presence of mind to give Fogg a crucial message in time for it to matter.
Rounding out the cast charmingly is Anita Vasan, who plays Aouda, the young Asian Indian woman Fogg and Passepartout risk all to save from the funeral pyre where the native priests in her village would roast her alive to fulfill her late, and much older, husband’s deathbed request she be killed and buried with his remains. No one in Aouda’s immediate vicinity is nonplused by her fate because the ritual to which she will fall victim is a custom. Any woman can be subject to it and is expected to stoically accept her fate.
Fogg, luckily, won’t stand for Aouda’s martyrdom and takes substantive steps to prevent it.
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.
There may be minutes when you want DePlanche, Hissom, and Mullen to curtail their silliness and let Treyz’s cast get on with the play. There may be times when you think, intensely, “Enough with this sequence already. Let’s return to substance,” but in general Treyz’s “Around the World” holds up and plays well. The reason is he agreed to do Brown’s “Around the World in 80 Days” and didn’t reduce it to wild romp that, in remote recollection, seems as it’s about this guy named Fogg and his valet Passepartout and this bet they made in London.
The two comedians have their bits worked out, and DePlanche takes everything that befalls Passepartout and the traveling party to an emotionally hysterical extreme because to him, every impediment or problem seems dire and final. DePlanche also shows his character’s loyalty and bravery when he singlehandedly takes evasive action to allow Fogg and others to rescue Aouda and plays an heroic role in an Indian attack. Though brimming with commotion Treyz’s “Around the World” plays like syncopated clockwork, scenes with Watson and Vasan often being of a more peaceful stamp than the rest of Brown’s show.
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 pirate get-up is enough to earn Best accolades, but it’s the tip of a large iceberg. No one is given credit for designing or procuring props, but various tools and stuffed birds added greatly to the amusement and craziness of the clowns’ choices. The set by Bob Philips and Samantha Vieth looks like an open space that can serve as many locales without specifying one from another. Phillips and Vieth do provide Treyz with that luxury, but they also add the image of a clock to the stage floor, project maps and other visuals, and cause desks, tables, chairs, and even a shack to materialize opportunely. All of the actors are aided by a running crew that gets everything set up with the speed necessary.
One good device is a set of blackboards that come from the stage left arch and tell how timely Fogg’s progress is as he struggles to win his bet. Treyz also creates some excellent images, such as when he has everyone leaning and rocking as a train gathers steam to jump over an unbridged gore. The building of the elephant Fogg leases to keep moving after missing a train is also fun to behold. Aouda is whisked to safety on that elephant.
Kudos to Treyz, Watson, DePlanche, Hissom, Mullen, Vasan, Phillips, Vieth, and Best for restoring my faith that farce and tense drama can meld. To everyone’s credit, I did not experience one minute of annoyance or fear this “Around the World” would be sacrificed to a trend that is coyly killing a genre of theater.
“Around the World in 80 Days” runs through Sunday, July 12, at on the Schubert Stage of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Arts Center of DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Saturday, July 4. No matinee is set for 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8. Tickets range from $50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by visiting www.pashakespeare.org.