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Review: 'Around the World in 80 Days' at Laguna Playhouse

January 13, 2009 |  3:30 pm

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The prospect of sitting through a new stage version of “Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne’s 19th century adventure yarn, which gave rise to numerous dramatizations (including the 1956 film that won a passel of Oscars, including best picture), didn’t strike me as the most cutting-edge way of spending a Saturday night. In this age of globalization, when direct contact with the antipodes is just a mouse click away, I felt rather quaint making the trip down to Laguna Playhouse for the opening, and couldn’t help wondering where I was supposed to park my horse and buggy.

But good storytelling is called “timeless” for a reason: Despite any initial artistic reservations I might have had, Verne’s narrative, cleverly distilled in Mark Brown’s adaptation, caught me in its web. Rendered into a lively theatrical shorthand by a company of five sparkplug performers under the farcically propulsive direction of Michael Butler, the tale didn’t seem musty in the least. Air travel may have made it possible to effortlessly traverse the international date line, but the idea of journeying far and wide to discover a better self at home never grows old.

Against the ticking of the clock, I began to fear that Phileas Fogg (an altogether convincing Matthew Floyd Miller), the exactingly fastidious Victorian gentleman who wagers he can circumnavigate the globe in fourscore days, would lose his private fortune. Worse, I wondered if he would miss out on the romantic opportunity he had stumbled upon and leave behind Aouda (a memorable Anna Bullard in her primary role), the lovely Parsi widow he rescued from an imminent human sacrifice.

OK, maybe the Western tourist sensibility is outdated. But post-colonial politics aside, it would be a shame if Phileas were to resume his solitary bachelor routine in London, even with his faithful French servant, Passepartout (Gendell Hernández), at his side.

There’s a reason Verne, known as the “father of science fiction” for such works as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” is reputed to be the second-most translated author of all time behind Agatha Christie: The interest-piquing method the French author employs, though loaded with mini-cliffhangers, isn’t simply one of mechanical suspense. His characters may be stereotypes with an idiosyncratic twist, but he elicits our emotional investment in them by allowing us to be present at the awkward start of new relationships in their lives. Old fashioned romance is certainly a part of Verne’s magic, but just as emotionally effective is the way he turns lonely stragglers into a family.

The action takes place on a curious looking set, complete with a revolving central stage, that’s designed by Kelly Tighe to resemble the inside of a watch. Though thematically apt, the display is a bit puzzling. More impressive is the simplicity with which a few chairs are transformed into trains and boats and the legerdemain by which one of the numbers on the time piece is converted into the trunk of an elephant that provides emergency passage.

The performance style is unabashedly broad, especially in the smaller roles. Mark Farrell, caricaturing accents and customs in a rapid-fire succession of native figures, approaches his task with comic zeal. Howard Swain, who plays (among other parts) Detective Fix, the gumshoe trailing Phileas, might err on the side of cartoonishness, but it’s all in the name of storybook fun.

Midway through the first half, as the setup becomes more familiar, there’s a noticeable dip in dramatic energy. Audience members will have to fuel themselves for a portion of the trip. But as the dangers threatening to derail Phileas and his companions intensify, so too do our pleasures of theatrical discovery.

--Charles McNulty

"Around the World in 80 Days," Laguna Playhouse,  606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesdays – Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $25-$65.  (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours.

Caption: From left, Matthew Floyd Miller, Howard Swain, Anna Bullard and Mark Farrell in "Around the World in 80 Days."

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