Walnut Street Theater, the oldest theater in the United States, brought their tour of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days to Appalachian State University’s campus on Wednesday night as part of the school’s Performing Arts Series. The cast of five versatile actors whizzed an appreciative audience on a colorful and humorous tour of the globe, playing up Victorian misconceptions and romanticization of exotic locations to strong comic effect.
The play, directed by Bill Van Horn and adapted by Mark Brown, tells the story of Phileas Fogg’s adventures when he bets half his fortune that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Accompanied by his trusty valet and a suspicious detective, he rescues an Indian princess, fights a duel, and commandeers a steamer with inscrutable British composure. Brown’s adaptation calls for frequent interruptions in the action; the first forays through the fourth wall crippled the building momentum, but timing improved as the pace tightened throughout the course of the first act.
Anthony Lawton’s interpretation of the main character was decidedly more stodgy than cool until his developing love interest in Aouda began to demonstrate the more tender aspects of his character. Sarah Gliko portrayed Aouda exactly as Jules Verne wrote her: a winning and unusual combination of demure and passionate. Passaportout (Damon Bonetti) easily won the most laughs with his burlesque French accent, colorful mannerisms, and excellent timing. Playing opposite the irrepressible valet, John Zak’s Detective Fix was more bumbling gumshoe than the stubborn bulldog of Verne’s novel. The interactions between these two were a nicely balanced combination of slapstick and repartee.
The principal characters were far from the only responsibilities of the cast. Bill Van Horn played a couple of sea captains, Proctor, and Sir Francis Cromarty, to name only a handful of his roles. The rest of the cast also wore many hats, in both a figurative and a literal sense. Popping in and out of characters both backstage and onstage requires an immense amount of concentration, especially when complicated by a multiplicity of quick changes. This cast turned what could have been problematic reality into comic opportunity.
The actors fielded questions from the audience afterwards, and Van Horn elaborated on some of his artistic choices as director. He intentionally exaggerated the colorful exoticism of Verne’s work and Victorian stereotypes of Indian, Chinese, and American cultures. The characters were drawn with broad strokes, which played well to the target audience (the show was marketed as family-friendly). Unfortunately, this approach did not allow for any appreciable level of subtlety and somewhat detracted from the depth of the production.
Understandably one of the most difficult elements of a truck-and-bus show, the lighting design was technically strong, but artistically inconsistent. The cues occasionally appeared gimmicky and once or twice were downright distracting. Andrew Thompson’s set, on the other hand, was a delightfully versatile construction capable of evoking a quarterdeck, the wood paneling of a passenger boxcar, or the pompous Reform Club as necessary. Another strong element was the use of limited onstage props to represent a variety of sights and sounds, from whistling wind to an obliging elephant.
Walnut Street Theater continues its own tour (although not quite of the whole world) bringing this amusing and energetic production to audiences around the East Coast.