Theatre Review: “Around the World in 80 Days” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

Last Friday I drove to downtown Indianapolis to the Indiana Repertory Theatre to see the opening night performance of “Around the World in 80 Days,” adapted from Jules Verne by Mark Brown, and directed by William Brown.

It is a DELIGHTFUL show.

My usual seat must have been given away because the ushers directed me to the balcony this time.  At first I thought, “Oh, no” because I was surrounded by families with children up there.  I was sure the children would get bored and become a nuisance.

They were as enthralled as I was!

Analyzing the Delight

The show is one big “let’s pretend” adventure.  If you have not read the novel by Jules Verne, or seen some other adaptation, you might be on the edge of your seat wondering if Phileas Fogg will make it around the world in 80 days and win the expensive wager he made with the other members of his posh London club.  It is 1862, so 80 days is a very short time for such a journey, and it has never been done before.  Also, even though Phileas is a careful, disciplined planner who is travelling light with only one servant and a carpet bag, he encounters a number of unforeseen distractions and obstacles – everything from sabotage to love.

However, whether you know how the story ends or not, another layer of adventure comes from wondering “How are they (the theatre people) going to do the such-and-such?”  (The typhoon at sea, for example, or the elephant!)  This is a polished, professional show, but things that could have been manufactured and special-effected to death are instead “merely” evoked in clever, clever ways.  Your own imagination is actively tickled by the imaginations of the actors, the director, the design team, and the script itself.  More about them in a minute. 

Another layer of delight comes from the romance.  Not just the romance between Phileas and a woman he meets along the way – although theirs is one of those mutual-rescue stories that make me swoon with pleasure – but also the romance of travel itself.  New landscapes!  New accents!  New cultures!

Another layer of delight comes from the unselfconscious way the show subtly explores and gently makes fun of stereotyping.  I was surprised at first to read in the director’s notes in my program that “Jules Verne never went anywhere…Born into a middle class French family (not even English!), he went into the family business and never saw India or China or the center of the earth or twenty thousand leagues under the sea.  He used his imagination and all the travel books he could find…”

But that makes sense.  As Josefa Beyer says in her Nuvo review, this show is a Neverland, not a reality.  Everyone’s reality is unique, of course, and the “real” picture of other countries that is available to us now through global media and cheaper travel methods is still self-selected, self-interpreted, and individually experienced.  If you want to believe that all English people drink tea every five seconds and all Americans lump all non-Americans into one category, or any other stereotype, you can find “evidence” to support your belief.  I think the reason the stereotyping in this show didn’t offend me is that it is consciously based on Jules’ Verne’s view of the world, and that view is so clearly innocent and so clearly based on respectful curiosity and yearning to know “the other.”

The Actors…No, Wait – The Costumes!

The tiny ensemble of five actors skillfully brings to life a gazillion characters, which is a hoot in itself.  There are multiple quick costume changes but also funny little strategies for believably delineating characters even when there is no time for a full costume change. 

So…Rachel Anne Healy’s costume designs include complete, gorgeous silk dresses with bustles and trains that sweep the floor but also what I imagine must be trunks and trunks’ worth of costume puzzle pieces: wigs and mustaches and pocket watches and tunics and gilded slippers and so on that are re-assembled every night in a whirlwind of activity back stage during the show. 

The Actors…No, Wait – The Music!

The sound design of a show is always important, of course, but in this piece the original music and sound design by Andrew Hansen is a special treat.  Train sounds, ocean sounds, and more trigger our minds into a fuller experience of each location on the journey, but also there are melodies that trigger a delightful (there’s that word again) feeling of “Here we go!  We’re on an adventure!”

There are also bits of music that sweeten the short expositions of facts that I assume the playwright, Mark Brown, took straight out of Jules Verne’s novel.  They are facts about the countries and about the processes of traveling.   The enjoyable music (and, of course, the actors’ delivery of the words) turns what could have been dry little paragraphs into appealing sidebars, smoothly incorporating them into the story.

The Actors…No, Wait – The Scenery and the Lights and the Smoke!

Kevin Depinet’s scenic design seems, at first, to be just a polished, dark, parquet floor under a prettily ornamented frame, with a little round table and a handful of embroidered chairs.  The materials look rich but the set as a whole looks…bare.

But then, as the story gets going, a little door pops open or a small committee of trees glides in or a perfectly chosen object drops down…or the lighting patterns change on the back wall (lighting design by Charles Cooper) or a puff of smoke adds another dimension of physicality and surprise…and suddenly it doesn’t matter that the set is relatively empty because there is almost constant movement.  Your imagination is happy (delighted!) to fill in the rest, and does so with ease. 

Nathan Garrison is the stage manager for this show.  I bet it is as exhilarating to run this show as it is to watch it.

I also bet that the IRT’s resident dramaturg, Richard Roberts, had his work cut out for him for this show, but again, I bet it was a fun show to research.

The Actors…No, Wait – The Pacing!      

William Brown’s direction of this show is spot on exquisite in terms of pacing.  (Not that it is not spot on in every respect – I just noticed, and was delighted by, the pacing in particular.)   It feels both Victorian and contemporary.  It is unhurried and yet you never stay in one place long enough to get bored.  There is a feeling of urgency, of course, because of the wager and its deadline, but there is also a feeling of civility.  The pacing of this show builds excitement rather than anxiety. 

The Actors…Ah, the Actors!

By the end of the show I was crushing big time on, well, really ALL five of the actors.  For me there is nothing more attractive than creative talent.

They all have excellent timing, for one thing.  And their movements express actions and settings in the story as clearly and yes, delightfully, as any of the words they say.

Also:

Jeff Cummings gives Phileas Fogg an intoxicating blend of reserve, precision, and in-spite-of-himself kindness.  I would want him around because of his reliability.  I would fall in love with him because of his dearness.

Minita Gandhi as Aouda does fall in love with Phileas of course, but it is no surprise that he falls in love with her, too.  She is exotically beautiful, poised, warm, gracious, needful and yet also strong and resourceful under pressure…all of the things that a true lady is impossibly supposed to be, but you can’t help liking her anyway.   This role doesn’t have as many funny bits as the others do, but Minita makes the witty bits Aouda does have sweetly satisfying.

The other three roles/actors are flat-out hilarious.

La Shawn Banks gives Phileas’ French servant, Passpartout, an appealing blend of exuberance and attitude.  Saucy, joyful, faithful…I totally believed that Passpartout used to be a circus performer but signed on with Mr. Fogg to now lead a quiet life (hah!) BUT did not quit his new “master” the moment he heard of the round-the-world wager.

John Lister plays, among other people, Detective Fix, who is convinced that Phileas Fogg is a criminal on the run.  John gives the detective a wacky seriousness that makes his character if not entirely sympathetic, then at least situationally so.  I felt sorry for his seasickness, for example, even as I was laughing at how believable it was!  And I definitely sympathized with him trying to ride that elephant.

All of the actors except Jeff Cummings play at least one role other than their main one, but Zack Buell…  Oh, my goodness, Zack Buell.  He plays “Everyone Else.”  I just wanted to hug him afterwards, he was so much fun to watch as all of those zillions of characters.

Special Deal for Library Card Holders

I happen to be on the mailing list for the “Wednesday Word” emails from the Indiana State Library.  Imagine my d-word when I saw the following in a recent edition:

Library Patrons Get Exclusive Offer for IRT Performance

Library cardholders will receive $10 off adult tickets for Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days at the Indiana Repertoire Theatre in Indianapolis . This offer is valid for any performance during the run of the performance (April 27 – May 16, 2010). Library patrons need only show their library card at time of purchase or when picking up tickets at Will Call.

In addition, to the offer above, a special promotion is available just for library patrons. The Super Sunday Ticket Specials enables patrons to purchase special $20 tickets to any Sunday performance of Around the World in 80 Days (Sunday, May 2 at 2 p.m. (EDT) & 7 p.m., Sunday, May 9: at 2 p.m., and Sunday, May 16 at 2 p.m.). There is no limit on the amount of tickets purchased, but both offers may not be combined with any other offer and are not available on online ticket purchases.

How cool is that!

Box Office

To make a reservation (which I always recommend, but especially for this show) please visit www.irtlive.com or call the IRT Ticket Office at 317-635-5252.  “Around the World in 80 Days” runs through Sunday, May 16, 2010.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Also follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com.

(5-8-10 update – I added a few more of Julie Curry’s wonderful dress rehearsal photos provided me by the IRT.  Roll your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.)

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