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Globe Trotters

Jules Verne's classic is an incredible voyage in CenterStage's capable hands.

circumnavigators (from left) Philip R. Smith, Joe Dempsey, Kevin Douglas, and Ravi Batista scan the horizon.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/9/2009

Around the World in 80 Days

By Laura Eason

Through Dec. 20 at CenterStage

Everything about Around the World in 80 Days is retro, from the Victorian setting, scenery, and costumes to the broad, stylized way it's acted and directed. It's the kind of affair that can end up feeling like little more than a lovely cartoon, pleasant to look at but with no resonance or soul. Writer and director Laura Eason, however, does something quite sneaky: She juxtaposes all this stylized finery and slapstick comedy with a subtle, quietly building emotional core that leaves you caring deeply for the characters and thinking about the show long after the lights go up.

The opening sequence feels like a 19th-century version of Groundhog Day. Phileas Fogg (Philip R. Smith) is a man addicted to routine. He wakes at the exact same time everyday, follows a daily schedule that it is timed to the minute--he goes to bed at 10:59 p.m.--and is so exacting that he fires his valet for not serving his tea at exactly 97 degrees. If Fogg sounds like a despot, he's not. He gives money to the poor, rarely raises his voice, and has an extreme sense of propriety and duty. Fogg's biggest vice is, perhaps, being boring.

Over his nightly game of whist at the club, he and the other gentleman begin talking about how long it would take to travel the world now that steamers and trains have changed the landscape. Fogg announces that it would take 80 days exactly and wagers half his fortune on it. The other half he throws in a carpet bag to cover expenses, and then he and his new valet, Passepartout (Kevin Douglas), a former circus performer with a penchant for getting in and out of sticky situations, embark on an epic voyage.

Along the way, Passepartout tries to convince himself that he wants a sedentary life while yearning to see the sights of the many countries Fogg has them disembarking and embarking to with clockwork precision. A theft of 50,000 pounds from the Bank of England becomes an obstacle when Inspector Fix (Joe Dempsey) decides that Fogg is the thief--convinced that the whole going around the world in 80 days thing is simply a ruse to distract from his fleeing the country--and tries to delay them at every turn.

Things get even more complicated when Fogg and Passepartout cross paths with the widow Aouda (Ravi Batista) in India; she is about to be unwillingly burned on the funeral pyre of her husband. Fogg decides to rescue her and she ends up continuing along on his journey. Fogg and Aouda slowly develop feelings for each other as she learns to appreciate his steadfastness and he admires her sense of wonder. Their burgeoning relationship is played with a subtlety that provides a lovely counterpoint to the play's broader comedy.

This retelling of Jules Verne's 1873 novel was brought whole cloth from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. And the experience shows, not just in the slick sets and clever effects, but in the performances by a cast very comfortable with the material. There are enough intricacies in this production to suggest that you'd have to see it multiple times to catch everything.

The set was inspired by British military-campaign furniture. According to the playbill, such furniture would often fold into innocuous looking trunks only to turn into a dining room table or bedroom set upon arrival in a foreign land. The stage similarly folds open to reveal whatever is needed at the time, be it the riggings of a boat or an elephant.

Still, the set changes little to denote various modes of transportation; instead, the actors sell each one by bumping along on railcars and slanting side to side on ships. There is even a table that tilts nearly--and in one case actually--spilling cups of tea.

The performances are strong throughout. Douglas masters larger than life comedy without becoming a buffoon as Passepartout, and Dempsey uses facial expressions and gestures to ring every drop of humor out of his role as Fix. Batista's gentleness as Aouda plays beautifully against the other outsized performances. And Smith's Fogg anchors the entire production. The ensemble is equally solid, particularly Usman Ally, who kicks off the show as Fogg's first valet and later plays Mr. Naidu, an Indian man met on the road, and makes both these small roles very memorable.

Director Eason keeps the action flowing and shows a real fondness for physical gags and an ability to wink at the play's more cartoonish aspects. The elephant that Fogg and company ride can't actually move, so the attackers run in place as they chase after it. And when the men at the club talk to each other they often harrumph rather than actually talk.

With a visually arresting set, strong performances, and script that has laughs and heart Around the World in 80 Days is a delightful fantasy that will make you want to travel the world and stay home in the arms of the one you love.

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