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'Around the World in 80 Days' a rollicking, farcical take on the adventure classic
Usually home to ambitious musical spectacles, Village Theatre's year-beginning midseason production is the company's opportunity to slow down and catch its breath on a pared-down production.
But in the case of Mark Brown's "Around the World in 80 Days," directed by David Ira Goldstein, there's ambition to be found in modesty. The production takes a cast of five and tasks them with filling a dramatis personae of 39, a feat accomplished with healthy doses of humor, fourth wall breaks and good old-fashioned pretend time.
Brown's script is a farcical take on Jules Verne's classic adventure novel. In the hands of Goldstein and the cast, the show takes its production limitations and mines the necessary compromises for laughs — be the situation pantomime, rapid-fire character changes or epic spectacles that always seem to be happening beyond the edge of the stage. They're constructing an elaborate inside joke and they're inviting the audience inside.
The story hews closely to that of the novel. Phileas Fogg (Jared Michael Brown) is a strait-laced upper class Briton who conducts his life according to a rigid schedule. What goes unappreciated by the people around him is that his eccentricities aren't an attempt to find solace in routine, but rather a personal tribute to the precision of a mathematical life. When the Daily Telegraph publishes an article postulating that newly built lines of public transport could allow the globe to be circumnavigated in 80 days, Fogg stakes his fortune on a bet that he can make the journey himself.
Soon he spirits off with his French valet, Passepartout (Chris Ensweiler), to prove the possibility of the trip. But things prove more difficult than they seem, as a case of mistaken identity, unfinished train tracks, repeatedly missed boats and the attempted human sacrifice of Indian beauty Aouda (Aneesh Sheth in her first Village production) conspire against them.
This show is fun, plain and simple. Simply keeping track of the rapid fire character changes is an endless source of amusement. The bulk of the character list is carried by Jason Collins and Eric Polani Jensen (Ensweiler and Sheth have few character swaps before they settle into their main roles, while leading man Brown has none at all).
Each man is a delight in his own way. It comes down to the difference between finesse and power. Collins is a preternatural chameleon, adopting the mannerisms of each character he plays completely. Meanwhile Jensen is too distinctive to suspend disbelief — so the show doesn't bother. Consequently, Collins receives the most masterful stage changes — a prop moves here, audience attention is misdirected there and, boom, he's transformed —while Jensen's shifts are made intentionally awkward and obvious for the sake of the laugh.
After getting a small taste of Sheth's comic timing and dramatic flexibility early in the show, you can't help but mourn a small loss when she permanently becomes the more sedate and serious character of Aouda — who primarily exists, in the original novel and the show, to prove Fogg's compassion.
No such loss is felt for Ensweiler, who inhabits the liveliest single character in the show as Passepartout. Ensweiler turns the Frenchman into a living cartoon, walking right up to the line of bombast without crossing over into obnoxiousness. His best moments are the ones spent alone with Jensen's incompetent Detective Fix. But his interplay with Brown is great as well — their scenes feel a bit like the Bobcat Goldthwait/Neil Patrick Harris buddy comedy that never was.
It's almost a shame for Brown, who's tasked with playing the stoic and unflappable straight man in the middle of all the slapstick. He's the designated driver at his own birthday party. But he carries the show well and is ultimately rewarded for it: Near the end he delivers one great line that feels like the punchline to a 100-minute setup.
"Around the World in 80 Days" is a fantastic ride that comes highly recommended. And bring the kids — this is the rare show that has a little something for anyone.