Thursday, April 25, 2013

ASF: "Around the World in 80 Days"

Sometimes all you need is a family-friendly rollicking good time in the theatre, just what the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is offering up in Mark Brown's lively adaptation of Jules Verne's sweeping adventure-filled "extraordinary voyages" novel, Around the World in 80 Days. -- Seven actors play a total of 34 roles in the ASF production that traces Phileas Fogg's [Kurt Rhoades] fictional 1872 circumnavigation of the globe in what was then a record time in order to win a bet based on his mathematical certainty. "The unforeseen does not exist" he says by anticipating obstacles along the route he takes through Europe, Asia, and America, and back to London.

The successful outcome is hardly in doubt, but much like life itself, the journey -- both around the world and of self-discovery -- by boats, trains, an elephant, and an elaborate sled with sails, and the setbacks along the way sustain the suspense and ensure some surprises, several adventures in exotic lands, and cliff-hanger moments, all done with imaginative staging by director Geoffrey Sherman on Peter Hicks' clever revolving set, and expertly performed by ASF's multi-talented ensemble actors.

Accompanying Fogg on his journey is his newly hired French valet Passepartout [Brik Berkes], whose occasional butchering of the English language belies his ability to adjust to most situations and to get them out of a number of scrapes.

To complicate matters, Detective Fix [Paul Hebron] believes with flimsy evidence that Fogg is the man who recently robbed the Bank of England, and doggedly follows him around the world determined to bring him to justice.

From the start, Mr. Rhoads presents Fogg as a mysterious sort who keeps to himself, has virtually no friends, and is a cipher to the other members of the Reform Club where the wager is made. However, he is generous and well-mannered, and when in India midway through Act I he rescues the lovely Aouda [Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel], a budding romance begins and we see subtle changes in the man.

This foursome is at the center of Verne's delightful plot, but the catalogue of 30 other characters they encounter dazzles with quick costume and personality changes and broadly comical impersonations, so much so that one would think there were a lot more actors than just these seven. But, when we recognize James Bowen, Jordan Barbour, Rodney Clark, and Ms. Vandenheuvel and Mr. Hebron in each new role, these recognitions enhance the hilarity and the audience's approval.

It can't get much better than this. What with broadly drawn caricatures of recognizable English Music Hall character types, bright performances by the acting ensemble, transport breakdowns, run-ins with an assortment of global legal systems, an opium den, a typhoon, a snowstorm, an attack by Apache Indians, and that elephant, the action moves at a rapid pace and we are engaged from start to finish in Around the World in 80 Days.