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What could be more staid than the Victorian stage? Heavily draped curtains, overdone fringe, portraits of pompous dignitaries, painstakingly painted backdrops.
Enter Preston Lane.
Thanks to Triad Stage’s co-founder and artistic director, chaos erupts within this stuffy Victorian setting, and the theater’s audiences are whisked away on a rollicking whirlwind tour: Around the World in 80 Days, adapted from the 19th century Jules Verne adventure novel by Mark Brown.
With this ambitious production, Lane once again proves that Triad Stage can tackle any genre in any era, and do it with the remarkable panache that has become Lane’s trademark.
There’s a fine line between the retelling of a classic and injecting comic elements not in the original work. This adaptation and Lane’s interpretation get it just right. As in the 1873 novel, our protagonist, Phileas Fogg, suggests to his cohorts at a London men’s club that he can make a trip around the world by ship, train, and anything else that propels him forward, in a mere 80 days. The bet: ₤20,000. His cohorts take him up on it, about the same time that the news of a daring bank robbery hits the newspapers.
The intertwining of the bank robbery case and Fogg’s amazing race is accomplished quite seamlessly and uproariously with the help of Andrew Rein as Detective Fix, a Sherlock-Holmesian chap who is sure he’s got his man. Or almost, anyway. Fix turns crime-solving into a laff riot, but not without a drop or two of suspense. Rein, a Duke grad, has a long list of credits, including TV shows such as “Law & Order” and Triad Stage’s Bloody Blackbeard, and he adds to his acting laurels with this performance.
The central character, of course, is Fogg, the sun around which the rest of the player-planets revolve. Lane has a knack for casting, and his Phileas is no exception. Ray Collins, in his Triad Stage debut, did not have to lose his English accent to play this part. Collins captures perfectly the propriety, sobriety, and Victorian obsession with detail — not to mention good posture.
We know little of Fogg in the beginning; his personality is revealed through actions rather than acting. But that is the purpose here — that Fogg project an image of the strong, chivalrous Victorian man of few words.
Where there’s a Fogg, there must be a foil, and that role is assumed by Fogg’s French assistant, Passepartout, played by Jamison Stern, whose credits include a part in By Jeeves on Broadway. Every opportunity to court danger that Fogg passes up, Passepartout invites; and for every solemn utterance made by Fogg, Passepartout cracks us up with an offhand observation, a pun, or merely a facial expression. Stern is an actor for whom even the cutting of the eyes can be rife with comedy.
And where would a Victorian novel be without a romance? The romance here is not quite as developed as other aspects of the story, but we get the picture; and it, too, makes us smile. The only female in the cast, Elena Araoz is beautiful as Mrs. Aouda, a Parsi woman doomed to be burned alive — according to the custom in India — on her husband’s funeral pyre. But Passepartout intervenes and sets her free.
It’s nice that Araoz doesn’t have to share the spotlight in her beautiful gilded costumes, but too bad she gets to change outfits only once on her long trip. But the gowns are a feast for the eyes and another feather in the cap of Triad Stage resident costume designer Kelsey Hunt.
Not to be overlooked in this production is the immense talent of Michael Tourek, most recently seen in Triad Stage’s Beautiful Star, who plays no fewer than 16 characters, all completely believable in their own hilarious ways. He plays each role like a man with a mission, and the parts become more and more like burlesque characters as the play progresses. By the second act, you are as much anticipating his next chameleon change as you are the unfolding plot. Cowboy, Chinese servant, train conductor, pompous English judge, police chief … how does he do it? One of his secrets, no doubt, is communicating to the audience that he’s having as much fun as they are.
The five actors are quite the quintet, but their jobs would have been much harder to accomplish without the lighting, sound, and scenic design of Norman Coates, Janie Bullard, and Howard C. Jones, respectively.
One of the most striking scenes in the play is an intimate moment between Phileas Fogg and Mrs. Aouda onboard a ship (one of several) during a night crossing. As the two stand together at the rail, the reflection of moonlight on the water dapples their faces as their shadows tower over them on the tall white sail. It’s absolutely brilliant.
Attempting to describe the specifics of the quintet’s romp from continent to continent would be travesty; but let it be said, the details do not disappoint. Elephant, camel, and prairie schooner are all present and accounted for.
Around the World in 80 Days is Preston Lane on LSD: laughter, surprise, and delight. And it’s a trip you’ll want to make again and again.
Around the World in 80 Days runs Tuesday-Sunday though March 7th at Triad Stage. See our theatre calendar for details.