Around the World in Eighty Days by Mark Brown, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Have you any clotted cream?"
Patrick Shea, Richard Howe, Peter Langstaff, Gil Brady, Sarah Corey; photo: Liz Augenstein
Is the line above funny? Not really. Said, however by an Englishman - precariously balanced on the head of an elephant traversing the forests of central India - to a Frenchman serving tea out of a carpet bag while three other folks bob up and down around them, it is very funny indeed. A howler, actually, and on stage at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont you can personally experience the joy of dissonant consonance. Sir Francis asks this question of Passepartout, personal servant to Phileas Fogg, rescuer of Princess Aouda. It is both "out of keeping with the situation" and typically off-the-cuff British uppercrust. It is hilarious and so is this play.
If you’ve only seen the David Niven, Shirley MacLaine, Cantinflas film you have to put all of that out of your mind. There is no balloon, no bull-ring, no dance-hall whore-mistress, no Salvation Army singer. There are still 39 major characters and an off-stage swarm of Apache, but there are only five actors, four chairs, a table, a ladder and a flight of stairs in view in this production. Four of the five bring thirty-eight of Verne’s characters to life and one plays Fogg. Oh, and no elephant, although you’ll swear you saw one.
What there is, folks, is a very entertaining and amusing play in which a lot of creative people bring a classic book to life. Sets, costumes, hats, wigs, sound and lights, interpretive elements guided by director Eric Peterson as he moves and directs and plays with his cast, are what make the show so showy. These technical elements truly make the show a happy time for everyone. Mike Cutler is responsible for the sound, Richard Howe has designed the very useful set, Liz Stott has taken wig jokes to a new level and her costumes are amusingly right while David Groupe’s lighting lends credence to place and time. Even the set painting in its monotone created out of many colors by Wm. John Aupperlee plays a role in this show.
Gil Brady as Actor 5 plays Phileas Fogg and it is wonderful to watch him transform during his quick trip around the globe from a stodgy, indigent gentleman into a man of charm and grace and graciousness. His transitions are gradual and his ultimate change, thanks to another character, is as lovely as it is lively.
Sarah Corey (Actor 4) plays the heroine, Aouda, and also three different men. She does well in all her appearances but her Aouda is lovely, gentle, strong and resourceful. She handles the East Indian accent beautifully (the entire cast uses accents to perfection) and her take charge moment in Act Two is both sudden and anticipated and is wonderfully played, simply and with charm. I also particularly enjoyed her as the newspaperboy.
Actor 3 takes on two roles and one of them is the new servant, Passepartout. He is quite French and he takes the role on to a tee. He (Actor 3) is Peter Langstaff. The actor is responsible for some of the funniest action in the play and some of the most delicious verbal wowees. Describing the train trip across America he recites the states they reach including "Illinwas" and although you know its coming it is still a surprise, a delight and loud laugh. Langstaff handles his role with aplomb and comes through it with a fine fruit compote.
Richard Howe takes on the multiple roles assigned to Actor 2. These include the fourth primary character of the piece, Detective Fix, a Scotland Yard officer pursuing a bank robber whom he believes is Phileas Fogg. We know he’s wrong but it takes the entire trip for him figure out how far from the truth he has drifted. Interesting: Fogg fixes everything while Fix gets lost in a fog. Howe also takes on a myriad of other characters while maintaining his hold on Fix. In all he plays nine roles and hints at others. Howe does quite a nice job at all of his part, but Inspector Fix is his finest here.
Actor 1 is Patrick Ellison Shea who plays at least sixteen roles. This is a very talented actor who doesn’t seem to be daunted by anything. He is a physical comic and fine comic actor. At one point in the show I could swear he was playing two men in the same scene without a costume change, but I’m undoubtedly wrong about that.
Eric Peterson has done a masterful job dealing with all that occurs in this play. He makes us see train cars on poorly laid track, ships caught in a gale, an elephant and even a mysterious stranger who robs a British Bank and is all right with the world. Peterson understands comic timing and he makes it work in this play. All his actors have responded to the needs of the work in its rapid fire dialogue and costume changes. In an interview the author claims that he designed this work for five players, based on his own experience in the theater in shows that required quick changes, and that he knew the transitions were doable. There are a few times when he really pushes buttons, though, and Peterson makes them play beautifully.
In their new theater in downtown Bennington, close enough to drive to from anywhere in the region, Oldcastle is presenting the next "Best" comedy of the season, Jules Verne’s adventure tale about a nearly mad aristocrat who gains his senses by doing the almost impossible. Fogg has a very good time learning who he is and what life is really about and his fans in the audience experience his joy through their own, from just watching him work it all out for himself.
Peter Langstaff as Passepartout; photo: Liz Augenstein
Sarah Corey and Gil Brady; photo: Liz Augenstein
Around the World in Eight Days plays through April 7 at Oldcastle Theatre located at 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT. For information and tickets call 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.