Mark Brown, creator of the slapstick epic adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, was in Ithaca for last week’s opening at the Hangar Theatre, where he sat prominently in a box seat. His presence gives one pause to think how much of the show comes from him.
As a young actor Brown appeared in the madcap Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shakspr (Abridged), which significantly influences what we see here. Brown has also been a dancer, and in this show, movement conveys more than words. When he adapted Verne’s 280-page 1872 novel for more than two hours of performance fun, Brown put in no stage directions whatsoever. That means no matter how popular 80 Days has become, you must see an entirely new conception each time.
Recognizing that this is a show where the constant inventiveness of five players in multiple roles is what drives the action, the Hangar put veteran actor-director Jesse Bush in charge of the production. Experienced in every genre from Samuel Beckett to David Sedaris, Bush has been especially adept at fast-moving comedy, such as 2013’s outta sight Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Yet Bush does not put his people on a bare stage, instead calling for an elaborate two-level set by Thomas Burch. Along with opening doors and steps to climb, the set displays gears and rotors of 1872-era technological advances.
Pride in the excellence of steam-engine trains and high-speed shipping is what prompts upper-class Londoner Phileas Fogg (Mark Shanahan) that he can race around the planet at such a clip. News of the completion of the trans-Indian railway convinces Fogg that everything is now set for his global race. He makes a wager of £20,000 with the stuffy members of the Reform Club that 80 days is just enough. Making the can-do protagonist an Englishman was a remarkable act of Anglophilia from Frenchman Verne, whose zest for ethnic humor runs through the entire script.
Striking a balance is Fogg’s resourceful manservant Passpartout (Claro Austria), whose name means “passes by everything.” While Fogg is logical and linear, Passpartout is intuitive and often circular, and usually a step ahead. Austria is the most physical member of the cast, part dancer, part acrobat, part speaking mime. Passpartout is a choice role, but Austria and director Bush seem to be mindful of playwright Brown’s original intentions.
All the other roles, from judges to Parsee priests to stagecoach drivers, are taken by three players: Kevin Melendez, shorter, dark-haired with a mutton-chop beard; Michael Di Liberto, taller and red-haired; and Ajna Jaisinghani, a gorgeous young woman of some south Asian ancestry. As rapid as the costume, prop and accent changes may come, the pronounced physical differences between the players mean that we are always supposed to see though the disguises, especially when they cross gender lines. We’re all in on the gag.
The program does not list all the roles taken in going around the world, but it feels like two dozen. Michael Di Liberto, initially playing a member of the Reform Club, quickly segues into the recurring character of Inspector Fix, a kind of comic Javert, who pursues the party on the trumped-up charge that Fogg is actually a thief who left London quickly with stolen loot. Fix would like to see himself as a threat, but is somewhat diminished by Passpartout’s chronic inability to pronounce his name. Di Liberto’s serial impersonations rely more on body set and shifts of vocal projection, enhanced by constantly shifting from the familiar Fix to more unlikely parts, such as the wife of a British rector.
Kevin Melendez uses sharper transitions in shifting character, such as getting down on his knees to become a French judge, donning a pith helmet as a member of the British Raj, or sporting an eye patch as an American gunslinger. All the players are sharp with accents, but Melendez gets a kick out of two contrasting western drawls.
Ajna Jaisinghani begins gamely in trouser roles, such as a morning-coated servant in London, and later as a shouting newsboy. But she settles in as Princess Aouda, whom Fogg and Passpartout rescue from the suttee in India, where the innocent young widow was to be burned alive. The elephant used in Aouda’s escape, thanks to designer Burch and costumer Mira Veilkley, gets its own applause.
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(Above) Claro Austria, Mark Shanahan and Ajna Jaisinghani in Hangar Theatre’s Around the World in 80 Days. Rachel Phillipson photo.