Theater Review - Theatrical Outfit runs amazing race Around the World in 80 Days

Clint Thornton directs a high-spirited adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel

Phileas Fogg, the English gentleman who journeys around the world in 80 days in Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, resembles a modern, 21st-century traveler circumnavigating the globe of 1872. Punctuality and exactitude define Fogg, and he’s capable of such precise estimates of travel times, it’s like his head contains a Wi-Fi connection to Travelocity. In his era, departures relied on the whims of tides and weather that could result in delays of weeks. Fogg’s more like the air commuter who gets impatient when the plane leaves the gate at 6:44 a.m. instead of 6:43.

Given that today you could drive to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and book a trip around the world in less than 80 hours, audiences need to put themselves in a pre-Wright Brothers mindset for Theatrical Outfit’s Around the World in 80 Days. Clint Thornton directs a high-spirited, almost giddy production of Mark Brown’s fleet adaptation, which will please anyone who finds a thrill in traveling by rail or steamship.

Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key plays a surprisingly restrained version of Fogg, one of literature’s iconic Englishmen (despite having been created by a French novelist). Instead of dervish-like energy, Key projects an unflappable calm as Fogg. A figure of almost zen-like stillness and confidence, Fogg dismisses surprise setbacks and potential disasters with remarks such as “It has been foreseen.” Brown’s text and Key’s performance humanize Fogg over the course of his journey, and he becomes a man of passion, not just android-like mathematical precision.

Fogg takes a 20,000-pound bet at his gentleman’s club that he can make the titular voyage, to the considerable surprise of his new manservant Passepartout (Paul Hester), a French former circus acrobat. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard’s Detective Fix (Bill Murphey) matches Fogg’s description to an aristocratic thief who robbed a London bank the same day as Fogg’s departure. Fix pursues Fogg with the intent of arresting him. One of the play’s archaisms holds that the detective can only serve a warrant on “English soil,” which, in the 19th century, includes India and Hong Kong.

Murphey and the father-daughter team of James and Kate Donadio play multiple roles on numerous continents, including Indian Brahmins, American cowboys, English diplomats, etc. James Donadio pushes his quick-change characterizations — and particularly his accents and speech impediments — to the height of silliness. He portrays a sailing ship captain, inevitably, as a pirate who says “Arrr!” Nevertheless, he combines irony with class as the show’s primary narrator, and plays hilariously off Murphey. Together, the pair has a whale of a time, with a comedy team dynamic reminiscent of Dudley Moore and the late Peter Cook. Murphey provides one of the play’s comedic highlights when he tries to recline on cushions in an opium den and his legs flail awkwardly, unable to find a comfortable pose.

Kate Donadio spends most of the play as Aouda, a widow in India rescued by Fogg and co. One could argue that an actress of color might have been more appropriate for her role(s). But Donadio fleshes out Aouda’s sketchiness as a stereotypical damsel in distress, and gives an even spunkier performance as an English newsboy who provides facts and footnotes about current events of 1872.

Clearly a theater company can’t literally replicate a play about traveling the globe — at least, not in this economy. Theatrical Outfit’s 80 Days relies on simple sets, cheerfully cheesy “exotic” costumes and, most conspicuously, five hotel-style luggage carts that represent ship rails, trains and even an elephant. (But not a hot air balloon, which isn’t in the book, but became part of 80 Days’ mythology thanks to use in the 1956 David Niven film.) Apart from the long-running time and some faux-macho crotch-grabbing gags in the American scenes, the play’s content proves so wholesome it could be a terrific family show. Parents could use the example of Fogg’s travels in Around the World in 80 Days on long car trips to silence kids who incessantly ask, “Are we there yet?”

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