Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
In a delightful, fun-packed holiday gift to its audiences, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Mark Brown's stage version of Around the World in 80 Days does highlight many other clever means the adventuresome Fogg employees to race around the globe to fulfill a £20,000 bet. From typhoon-tossed ship in the Hong Kong Sea to bridge-jumping steam train in the Sierras, Phileas makes his way back and forth across the TheatreWorks stage, even having high tea atop a lumbering elephant in India's jungles. As a master of directing year-in, year-out laugh-filled, heartwarming shows, Robert Kelley guides a cast of five as they are clearly having the times of their lives. Traversing the globe in 1872, they bring along an audience that is brimming with grins and laughter and that quite apparently by their reactions can hardly get enough of Fogg's near disasters and just-in-time successes.
Phileas is a man structured to the minute in his day-to-day life, as his newly hired servant Passepartout soon learns when handed a detailed list of what is to occur when (including a 10:20 a.m. necessary visit to the loo). But just as the French butler is settling in to a job where he hopes life will be nice and easy, in pops Phileas declaring that they are leaving immediately to travel around the world in a mere eighty days, taking with them only a couple of shirts each and some necessary socks and underwear.
Phileas has accepted the challenge and bet made over a game of whist with his aristocratic buddies at The Reform Club that he can actually do so in eighty days, as an article that day in The Times suggests can be done due to new means of modern transportation and a recently completed train route across British-held India. The master of daily schedules has already outlined an exact route and milestone goals that must be met; and off the two head for the first of many trains and boats. Unbeknownst to Phileas, a daring bank robbery that very day by a gentleman matching his description has occurred, and one bubbling Detective Fix is soon to be hot on Fogg's globe-trotting trail to arrest him (if the home office can ever forward a warrant in time before Phileas hops the next boat to China, or wherever).
Much of the wonder and fun of Mark Brown's adaptation is that only five people are in the cast, with only one (Jason Kuykendall) playing one part as Phileas Fogg. Kuykendall's Phileas strides in big, fast steps everywhere he goes, quite oblivious and nonplused to all the hubbub occurring around him, as his loyal servant rushes to avert disaster after disaster and as the hilariously inept but quite lovable Detective Fix keeps chasing him under the guise of being a fellow traveler. His manner of nonchalant naiveté is only matched by his straight-ahead determination to keep moving forward, no matter the latest obstacle (furious Buddhist monks, Indian tribesman looking to sacrifice someone, and of coursegiven the time periodAmerican Indians ready to rid their land of invaders).
Tristan Cunningham is nothing short of brilliant in her portrayal of the diminutive, good-natured, and loyal-to-the-core servant Passepartout. Multitudinous expressions of wonder, mischief, strong will, boldness, and cunning march across Passepartout's face as the small body is often gigantic in its feats of leaping, rolling, sliding, and even hiding its way across the globe with his master. The wonderful French accent Ms. Cunningham uses gushes rich from a mouth never quiet for too long. Her Passepartout is the prime source of much of the production's humor and heart and a reason still to smile the next day as an audience member replaying last night's scenes from memory.
But vying for that humor-and-heart award is also Michael Gene Sullivan's Detective Fix. His pursuit of Phileas is full of dead-ends and just-missed chances, and his encounters with Passepartout give both actors excuses and opportunities to shine in duets of shenanigans. When not the chasing detective, Mr. Sullivan pops up in a variety of other roles along the way, exchanging his British accent for dialects of India and beyond.
However, the master of the quick changes in professions, nationalities, ages, dialect and accents, and of course, sexes is Ron Campbell who wows the audience with his multiple personalities and personas. British counsels around the world whose main talents seems to be stamping the hell out of any paper or passport put in front of them; sea captains gruff in looks, voice, and language; an aged and lisping judge; or a wild-eyed and bragging frontiersmanthese are just some of the many quirky characters right out of storybook pages that Mr. Campbell brings to real life, if only for less than a minute. His transformations are greatly aided by the several score of oft-elaborate and usually comical costumes B. Modern has designed for him and the rest of the cast. Kimberly Mohne Hill deserves big-time kudos as dialect coach, as Mr. Campbell alone speaks in numerous dialects representing different regions of India, different parts of England, and many spots in between.
Rounding out the talented ensemble is Ajna Jai, whose principal appearance is as the beautiful Aouda, an Indian woman rescued by Passepartout and Fogg and the source of a shift in Phileas where more is on his mind than just winning a bet.
Robert Kelley ensures there is hardly a moment for cast or audience to catch their breath in this two-hour, twenty-minute tour-de-force of director, creative team and actors. Surprises abound along the way as his stage version mirrors the film with silly and welcome insertions anachronistic to the 1870s. Much of the action is like kids playing in the backyard, as trunks become train seats and bodies bounce and sway along their bumpy wayswith some of the most spastic and out-of-control body parts on one particular wild train ride I have ever seen on a stage. It is as if an animator had stepped in to create a live cartoon film on the stage before us.
As they are prone to do, Joe Ragey, Steven B. Mannshardt, and Cliff Caruthers each has employed many tricks and talents in designing, respectively, the scenes, lighting and sound of this TheatreWorks gem. Particularly fun in the scenic design is a gigantic game board, reminding one of Monopoly, where a world globe with a referent map of Phileas et al's journey resides in the center and "properties" along the edges denote the many stops of the travelers.
There are times when going to the theatre should be just for the fun of it, with nothing to be learned and with no heavy messages. After the year we in the audience have endured in 2017 with all the troubling turbulence in our political and physical worlds, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's exceptionally conceived and executed Around the World in 80 Days is just the kind of diversion to help us remember that there is and can be hope for happy holidays and a happy New Year.
Around the World in 80 Days continues through December 31, 2017, by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org or by walk-up one hour before performances.