The new stage version of the iconic Jules Verne adventure novel at the Irish Repertory Theatre, a coproduction with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, shares nearly every feature with last season’s surprise Broadway hit. Small cast telling a giant story with perpetual-motion energy! English people doing wacky things! Enigmatic-looking leading man who makes glowering into an art form! A running time of two breezy hours!
Of course, the inverse is also true. If The 39 Steps landed at your theatregoing doorstep with a window-shattering thud, you’re not going to find much of value here, either. Psychotically incompatible acting styles! The unabashed celebration of theatrical artifice for artifice’s sake! A serious-minded work from a major artist being exploited for purposes of sophomoric comedy! A running time of two interminable hours!
Which camp is yours?
I stake my claim to the latter, with far more energy, enthusiasm, and happiness than I could muster at any point during Michael Evan Haney’s inexhaustibly annoying staging of Mark Brown’s potentially worthwhile adaptation. Brown has skillfully collapsed Verne’s expansive literary travelogue into a tight, taut package that respects its source without being enslaved to it. And unlike The 39 Steps, the compression here for a miniature ensemble makes sense, highlighting the gone-in-a-flash nature of both the story and the production.
Then there’s all that joking, all the snide commentary on the storytelling method itself and on pop culture references, that makes it difficult to appreciate - or in most cases, even discern - Brown’s accomplishments. As Phileas Fogg (a deadpan-on-arrival Daniel Stewart) traipses around the globe trying to win his precious 20,000-pound wager and elude the determined Detective Fix (John Keating), he encounters allusions to Titanic (look, they’re standing like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the Titanic’s deck!), action-serial tropes (can he possibly run through the train in time?), and hoary slapstick standbys (one character mispronounces his name once, and can never get anyone to say it correctly).
Such shenanigans have worn out their welcome long before Fogg first breaks out his passport. Around the World in 80 Dayslike The 39 Steps, is best when it uses theatre to create theatre without apologies and without irony. When Fogg is in India, where he meets and rescues the beautiful princess Aouda (Lauren Elise McCourt), the cast assembles an oddly enchanting elephant from a messy collection of found items. Later on, a shootout on an American train assumes epic proportions with little more than the company’s creative bouncing and the precise rapping out of bullet sound effects.
Otherwise, Haney never justifies his concept - it all looks and behaves like an on-the-cheap way to produce an expensive play with a title that has excellent name recognition. David K. Mickelson hasn’t much skimped on the costumes, which does help establish a visual continuity, but everything else could have been bought off the rack at the 99-cent store, with change forthcoming.
This applies to the performers as well - with the exception of the usually upstage “foley artists” Elizabeth Helitzer and Mark Parenti, who ensure that the sound effects keep flawless pace with the motion of the story. But Stewart is short on charm, and never provides a compelling reason for you to want him to win the bet; McCourt is on permanent slow fizz, too laid-back to arouse the passions her character must; Keating and Jay Russell, as a dozen other characters each, distinguish themselves more by their ability to change costumes quickly than differentiate various people on any deeper level.
Special mention, however, must be made of Evan Zes. He plays Fogg’s doting but heroic French servant Passepartout with all the delicacy of a 15-car pileup. His facility with pratfalls and other forms of physical comedy simply can’t excuse the mincing, mugging, and constipated quackery that constitute his entire portrayal of what should be an underrated man made good. His most gag-inducing running gag involves his melon-spurting accent, typified by his constantly referring to his father’s prized pocket watch as “a perfect time pisssss.” It’s unthinkable that Zes would be allowed - or encouraged - to perpetuate similarly disgusting stereotypes were he playing (for example) an African- or Asian-American character.
What he’s doing reeks more of desperation than invention - worse, it’s simply not funny. And even if it were, such mocking of an entire nationality (Verne’s, no less!) contributes nothing to our understanding of either Passepartout or Around the World in 80 Days. This is, however, not so surprising. When you put classics through the meat grinder and burn the result beyond recognition, you still have to dress it up somehow. And at that point, how concerned can you possibly be with good taste?
Around The World In 80 Days