LOS ANGELES – This stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 1872 novel Around the World in 80 Days is simply sheer delight. In this charming Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre production, based on Mark Brown’s play, five gifted thespians play 39 different characters to great effect, a technique used by casts small in size but large in talent in other shows, such as the Hitchcockian 39 Steps and Israel Horovitz’s Lebensraum. Indeed, this comedy could have been entitled “Around the World in 80 Roles.”
All this lightning-fast changing of costumes, props and sets lends itself to levity – especially as mustaches droop and muttonchops fall off of undaunted actors who know the show must go on. Although Verne is best known for his groundbreaking science fiction, beneath all of this version’s madcap mayhem and merriment is one of literature’s great interracial love stories.
As most readers know, Phileas Fogg (Philip Kreyche, seemingly the sole cast member with only one part to play) is a very proper, punctilious Englishman more punctual than Swiss precision timing. So much so that it seems the Londoner’s heart is made out of cogs and gears.
The drolly monikered Fogg enters into a wager with fellow members of the Reform Club and, without a moment to spare, he and his gentleman’s gentleman, Passepartout (Andrew Carter who, like his character, is boundlessly energetic), embark – more than a century before the dreaded advent of so-called “reality TV” – on a truly amazing race: Gallivanting across the globe in the wagered 80 days. Of course, set in 1872, this is long before the Wright Brothers flew their winged contraption at Kitty Hawk or the invention of cars and other forms of high-speed travel we now take for granted.
But en route Fogg encounters, and along with his faithful manservant, rescues alluring Aouda (the enchanting Eva Abramian, who also plays some transgender roles) in India. But Aouda is more than a mere damsel in distress: She is high-spirited, feisty, spunky, bright and most lovable. (In one humorous if politically incorrect scene set in the Wild West, the Indian (dot) shoots it out with Indians (feathers) attacking them during the voyagers’ cross-continental train trek.)
To make a long story short, Aouda makes the machine man realize he is mere flesh and blood, after all. Jules Verne not only anticipated trips to the moon and 20,000 leagues under the sea, but the trend of interracial romances in European letters, featuring the Western male courting the “exotic” Third World female. Eight years before Pierre Loti’s eponymous 1880 Marriage of Loti, wherein the Frenchman “wed” the Polynesian vahine Rarahu at Tahiti, and a third of a century before the Yank Pinkerton wooed Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly (based on another Loti cross-cultural romp, 1887’s Madame Chrysanthème), Phileas met Aouda.
While their trip around the world is whimsically, expertly rendered by scenic designer David Goldstein and projection/prop designer Nicholas Acciani, Fogg’s real odyssey is within, where the man of pure logic discovers emotion and dare we say – oh yes, let’s -true love.
I’ve but one bone to pick, and this is with none other than author Mssr. Verne himself, who superimposed a totally unnecessary crime story on his tale, as if the endless adventures of the world travelers and their love affair weren’t enough to preoccupy and transfix the minds of readers (or in this instance, viewers). Having said that, in one of his countless roles as Scotland Yard’s Detective Fix, the protean Bruce Ladd is always a hoot (as is his coy co-star Kevin Coubal, whether he’s going for broke as a Chinese broker or British consul). I ended up not minding this superfluous, somewhat distracting bank robbery subplot too much; my mild objection is a mere quibble that should under no circumstances dissuade ticket buyers from enjoying a superb night out at the theater.
Director Rhonda Kohl deserves kudos for keeping this globe and stage spinning, along with audience members’ heads. Inspired by this daffy, delirious tour de force, I made the mistake of watching part of the completely mirthless, ineptly made, utterly depressing 2004 movie version of Around the World in 80 Days, which reduced Verne’s captivating novel to the low level of bumbling slapstick, substituting silver screen special effects for charm. For some strange reason in this big budget “blockbuster” Aouda is transformed from an Indian into a Frenchwoman, while the French Passepartout is turned into a Chinese character – but not even Jackie Chan could rescue this $110 million misbegotten bomb. Produced with just a smidgeon of the flick’s budget, the Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre spectacle is far superior, and although performed onstage instead of onscreen, infinitely more cinematic. The play’s rendering of an elephant is far more visually inventive than any of the pic’s special FX. Because when it comes to the arts, imagination and artistry outstrip and outrank money any day.
However, this play did make me want to read Verne’s original novel, as well as re-see the Todd-AO 70 mm 1956 classic, which won the Best Picture Oscar and starred David Niven, Shirley MacLaine (who spoke about making this movie at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival) and Cantínflas. Until then, I could see this perfectly enjoyable stage ode to joie de vivre, wherein love conquers all and time stands still, another, well, 79 times.
Around the World in 80 Days is being performed through June 14 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and on Sundays at 2:30 pm, with Saturday matinee at 2:30 pm on June 13, and 1:30 pm on June 6, at the Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre (located on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, with free parking across the street on Carlos Ave.), 1760 N. Gower St., Los Angeles. For more info: (322) 462-8460; http://actorsco-op.org/.
Photo: Actors Co-op Theatre Company Facebook.