Walnut Street’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at George Mason U’s Center for the Arts by Francine Schwartz

Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio brought audiences at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts a fast-paced adaptation of Jules Verne’s masterpiece Around the World in 80 Days this last night. This is a stop on the third national tour of a Walnut Street Theatre production which originated in Philadelphia.

Based on the classical adventure novel by French writer Jules Verne, Walnut Street Theatre’s version of Around the World in 80 Days is an adaptation written by Mark Brown 13 years ago. It’s the story of Phileas Fogg, who, prompted by an article in The Daily Telegraph and a hefty wager with friends, sets out to travel around the world in 80 days.

The cast of 'Around the World in 80 Days.' Photo courtesy of George Mason University.
The cast of ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

Technological advances of the 19th century created new possibilities for travel adventures. First published in 1873 Verne’s  novel, Around the World in 80 Days, has been adapted several times, including the 1956 Oscar-winning Best Picture and the 1989 Emmy nominated three-part TV mini-series. Award-winning writer and actor Mark Brown’s adaptation of the novel premiered in 2001 at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

The story incorporates nearly every form of transportation known at the time including trains, wood powered speed vessels. and elephants, but the iconic balloon familiar from the movie is not present here.

It’s 1872 in London. Phileas Fogg believes that, with modern transportation, it’s now possible to travel around the world in 80 days. At the local Reform club, and despite his total lack of prior travel experience, he accepts a challenge of proving it can be done, placing an extravagant bet on his accomplishment. The race against time begins that evening and it’s a surreal and peripatetic journey filled with exotic locales, adverse weather conditions, scurrilous native opportunists, daring adventures, narrow escapes and great fun. The armchair traveler can relish his safety while vicariously cheering on the Victorian heroes who surreptitiously highlight the cultural superiority of the English while displaying pidgin french and pompous English vocabularies. There’s villains, (mostly foreign) secret plots, a damsel in distress and narrow escapes as our heroes move from country to country, acquiring elephants, loosing their shoes,  shedding large tips and cementing their esprit de corp.

The Around the World cast is composed of just five actors, including director Bill Van Horn, who “plays all the geezers.” In the after the play discussion, the cast described the challenges of making adjustments from night to night based on the venue. This was the largest audience they have had to date, about 1600 people, while some of the performances occur in tiny theaters and require less expansive gestures and less volume. They also discussed memonic techniques necessary to master the rapid-fire dialogue.

The cast features an impressive array of talent. Anthony Lawton plays Phileas Fogg. His French valet Passaportout is played by Damon Bonetti. Sarah Gliko joins the cast as the beautiful Aouda who is rescued from the funeral suttee of her husband in India. Fix, the detective from Scotland Yard, is John Zak, who plays multiple characters, including the detective who tracks Phileas Fogg under the impression that he is a thief trying to abscond with ill gotten gains.

Van Horn is an actor/director/writer as well as bon vivant. According to Van Horn, Walnut’s touring production features a small cast in order to make travel easier. resulting in the cast having to do without dressers who would normally facilitate costume changes. This makes the scene behind the set almost as picturesque as the audience view as the actors race around to make each other’s entrances possible. Van Horn gave profuse credit to the costume designer who had to factor in ease of dress and undress into each of the costumes. He played so many different incidental characters in this play that I find it difficult to provide a primary identity or name for this review.

This is the third Walnut production to tour, following the success of the first two national tours of Walnut Street Theatre productions of The Glass Menagerie and last season’s PROOF. With a home base in Philadelphia, the Walnut Street Theatre has an ensemble group of actors who travel as far south as North Carolina and has gone as far west as Indiana. Next year, Walnut has plans to take its production of Driving Miss Daisy to Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and California.

Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with a ten minute intermission necessitated by a hurricane. (Don’t worry, no lives were lost).

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Around the World in 80 Days played Saturday, February 23, 2013, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA (the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123). Check their calendar for future events.



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