“Around the World in 80 Days” @ HVSF

The first time I ever heard the name Phileas Fogg was in 4th grade. Our teacher wanted to read a classic adventure to us and chose Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. For several weeks, we spent the last ten minutes of the school day enraptured by the tale of this unflappable British gentleman, his somewhat inept valet and sidekick and their quest to make their way around the world in 80 days, the result of a seemingly absurd wager made between gentlemen at the Reform Club. I was transported by the story-telling experience and have been a fan of the classic ever since.

This experience came to mind as I sat in the audience for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival‘s production of Around the World in 80 Days, written by Mark Brown. Since I began attending the Festival in 2009, there appears to be a trend: one comedy, one tragedy and a metatheatrical romp. While this year the third entry branches out from the traditional Shakespearean fare with this new adaptation, it is in the same madcap spirit of the Festival’s productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and The Bomb-itty of Errors. Within minutes, I found myself once again immersed in the story, only this with the added bonus of side-splitting laughter.

Forget the film. Yes, it won 5 Oscars in 1956 but that was because it was made a boat load of money and looked really pretty on a giant Todd-AO screen. In spite of David Niven and a sea of cameos, the film adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is something of a bloated bore and one of the least deserving Best Picture winners of all time (See? It happened long before The King’s Speech). Too much focus on serene cinematography and not enough focus on action, character and plot, plus it starts with a tedious mini-documentary.

Truth be told, Verne’s story is heavy on action and light on character development. In Brown’s adaptation, the action picks up rather quickly and only builds in tension and genuine excitement as the the story reaches his climax and Fogg’s deadline approaches. The momentum might be better served if the play were performed without an intermission, but the break doesn’t detract from the energy, and the production is far funnier than I think anyone might expect going in (and there are a few choice jokes for the grown-ups that will sail right over the kiddies’ heads).

Richard Ercole is the embodiment of stiff-upper-lip British reserve as Fogg, a character whose emotions are so tightly contained he makes the Queen of England look like a flower child. Ultimately he becomes a the straight man to the lunacy around him. Wesley Mann is on hand in a variety of roles, but makes his greatest impression as Detective Fix  who trails Fogg, convinced he’s the culprit of a high profile robbery in London. Ryan Quinn is an earnest Passeportout, Fogg’s valet with a knack of getting into trouble no matter the situation.Vaishnavi Sharma plays several roles but makes for an especially spirited and likable Aouda, the Indian widow who is rescued during the voyage. Susanna Stahlmann, decked out as a 19th century assistant, is responsible for all the “special effects” and executes them all perfectly (I’m being purposefully vague here, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of her function in the show).

The entire ensemble is stellar, but the secret weapon of this production is the unbelievably versatile Jason O’Connell. The actor, whom I last left me breathless in the HVSF production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Unabridged) plays a slew of characters, constantly changing costumes, personas and accents. His willingness to go the extra distance with his comedy is where his performance pays off the most. There were moments when the comedy got the better of his co-stars. Normally I’m not a big fan of folks breaking up onstage; however, this was like watching Tim Conway get the best of Harvey Korman.

The credit must go to the director, Christopher V. Edwards, whose gift for comedy has been put to excellent use as both an actor and director for the Festival. He’s especially adept at creating an onstage involvement that requires the audience to become active participants with minimalist scenery, effective use of props and the actors creating the effect of being on a speeding train or a ship being tossed around in a typhoon. His work is extremely inventive, and I find myself constantly surprised by elements of his direction. I would love to see what Edwards would do with Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps. (Hint, hint).

Around the World in 80 Days runs in repertory with The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet through Labor Day on the beautiful grounds of Boscobel through Labor Day. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival provides an affordable way for parents to introduce kids to Shakespeare and theatre – their full price tickets are a 1/3 of an orchestra seat on Broadway. The grounds open two hours before each show for picnicking on the grounds and the Festival has concessions available.