"Around the World in 80 Days"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Around the World in 80 Days” is now on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. As it sits astride two worlds—storybook and drama—the show is comfortable in neither world. Certainly the original Jules Verne tale of 1873 had proved a great success, as had the star-studded movie version in 1956. And now playwright Mark Brown’s adaptation of the original tale would seem a natural succession.
But the new format fails. Why? My eight-year-old grandson Ethan, on seeing the show, summed it up succinctly. “I expected more,” he pronounced. “A good story, but no action and no scenery.” (“But the second act’s better,” he added generously.)
Right on target, for an eight-year-old. But an equally appropriate reaction for adult viewers. The show fails to reach both audiences, lacking, as it does, a bite to the story that would satisfy adults or the visual excitement and fast-moving scenes that would impact on children.
The original Verne story (to which this production is faithful) follows the adventures of one Phineas Fogg, a British gentleman who takes a bet with fellow members of his London Reform Club. Can he circumnavigate the world in eighty days? Not an easy feat in the 19th century, with no planes or space vehicles. Along the way, Fogg meets up with such misadventures as train breakdowns, passport problems, hostile Native Americans, and the dogged stalking of one Detective Fix.
Granted that Brown and director Michael Evan Haney have used clever devices to tell the story. With a minimum of props and scenic effects, they throw it all into the actors’ hands. Whether on sea or land, train or ship, each lap of the journey is suggested by the actors’ coordinated efforts—as they sway and bump their way around the world. These are the only compensations in a disappointing production.
And indeed this is a fine cast, with a superb sense of timing. Both Mark Shanahan as Phileas Fogg and Evan Zes as his servant Passepartout give impeccable, highly-caricatured performances. Zes, in particular, is a gifted clown who uses his body to tell the tale. But others in the cast—Andrew Grusetskie, Jeff Biehl, and Lauren Elise McCord—keep up with them in performance.
Yet this “Around the World in 80 Days” is essentially narration—a telling of the story, rather than a dramatization. With such a static, pared-down narration, one might well return to the original Jules Verne book.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 7, 2004