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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Around the World with Passepartout

Around the World in Eighty Days
Robert Krakovski and Kevin Isola
The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre's retelling of Jules Verne's classic novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, is an overstuffed but entertaining comic adventure.  Verne's episodic story is told Story Theatre style with extensive narration, often in Jules Verne's own words.  However, the plot gathers momentum and suspense as this production approaches the finish line, sending us home in delighted high spirits.  This is not the adaptation that has been produced recently at New York's Irish Rep and other theatres around the country.  It is a brand new, ambitious, nearly three-hour long adaptation written and directed by NJST artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

The title is likely familiar to many, and the novel has had several prior stage and film incarnations, but it is unlikely that the specific details of Verne's nineteenth century classic will be unfamiliar to many of today's theatergoers.  It is set in 1872.  A debate at the posh, exclusive Union Club is prompted by a newspaper article which claims that, with the opening of a new section of track in India, one can now travel around the world in eighty days.  Phileas Fogg bets doubtful fellow club members that he can travel around the world in eighty days or less.  In very short order, Fogg and his newly hired valet, Passepartout, head off to do so.  They are followed in hot pursuit by Detective Fix, who wrongly believes that Fogg is the well turned out thief who has just robbed the Bank of England.  Fix thinks that the bet is a ruse to enable Fogg to avert capture.  Fix connives to keep Fogg from journeying beyond British colonial territory until he is sent a warrant which will allow him to make an arrest.  Fogg's quest takes him to Paris, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York, Liverpool and any number of places in between.  Among their adventures, Passepartout is arrested in Bombay for desecrating a Hindu temple by entering it wearing his shoes; they rescue Aouda, a young Parsee Indian princess, from Hindu fanatics who are trying to force her to sacrifice herself following the death of the elderly Rajah whom she had been forced to marry (she continues with them on their journey in order to prevent being recaptured and executed); Fogg buys an elephant to carry them to Calcutta when their train cannot complete the trip because fifty miles of train track have yet to be laid down; and their American railroad train is attacked by Sioux. They endure many more perils as they journey around the world, but you get the picture.  Verne's depictions of Eastern religions are not bound by any notions of political correctness.

Aside from the unexplained drive and audacity with which he undertakes his journey, Fogg is a dull boy.  A well mannered, unflappable, secretive, rigid and punctual Union Club member, Fogg's personal history is a mystery.  He breakfasts and dines alone at the Club, departing for home each night precisely at midnight.  Save for the club, he is never seen anywhere.  If not Fogg, the colorless protagonist, who will engage and entertain us as each episode is played out?  Much of this task falls to the four actors who portray more than thirty subsidiary characters.  However, for dramaturgical and comic purposes, the locus of Monte's adaptation is Fogg's valet Passepartout.  Her adaptation alters Passepartout's history to accommodate his persona.  A reluctant traveler at the start, Passepartout gets to observe Fogg's humanity and integrity, and soon becomes the most loyal and ineptly unhelpful servant in literature.  His endeavors are so crucial that  The Misadventures of Passepartout would be a fitting subtitle for Monte's adaptation.

Most fortunately, Kevin Isola is a dexterous, rubber-bodied, natural comedian with excellent comic timing.  Not only does Isola provide miles of smiles and any number of laughs, he does so while always remaining in character.  He can quickly and seamlessly segue to portray emotion when required to do so.  Robert Krakovski is effortlessly smooth and suave as the unflappable Fogg.  Krakovski briefly portrays a ship's clerk, leaving Isola as the only member of the six-member cast not to play multiple roles.   Adapter Monte may be telling us that the central role here is that of Passepartout.

David Foubert, principally portraying the bumbling, tenacious Detective Fix, is a solid second banana to Isola's Passepartout. Maureen Sebastian's principal role is that of Indian princess Aouda (her additional, mostly male, roles are in scenes where the other actors are otherwise engaged).  Sebastian is a fine Aouda, but cannot match her stage mates subtle comedic caricatures in her other roles.  Edmond Genest is delightful in skewering a variety of military and authority figures.  Jay Leibowitz is equally successful portraying characters who are largely of more common stature.

Bonnie J. Monte's direction is most lively and entertaining, although her adaptation is unevenly paced.  The adaptation neatly follows the Verne novel in structuring a key, seemingly non-sequential sequence.  The excellent, free flowing set design of Michael Schweikardt has apparently been developed in concert with Monte's directorial concept.  The main elements of the set design are a seemingly endless number of wheeled-in set and furniture pieces which depict dozens of settings in eye appealing fashion while allowing the story to flow uninterruptedly.  The delightful period costumes of Emily Pepper make a substantial contribution to the proceedings.

Bonnie J. Monte has stated that financial concerns are presenting a challenge to NJST.  She further noted that it has been exhilarating for her and her artists to rise to meet that challenge.  If the successful design work for her family-friendly adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days is a precursor of things to come, then the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre will ride out our financial crisis in high style.

Around the World in Eighty Days continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7:30 p.m. – except 5/24) through May 24, 2009 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

Around the World in Eighty Days adapted by Bonnie J. Monte from the novel by Jules Verne; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast
Phileas Fogg, Ship's Clerk…………………..Robert Krakovski
Monsieur Passepartout……………………………….Kevin Isola
Detective Fix, Narrator, Parsee, et al…………..David Foubert
Narrator, Ralph, Sir Francis, et al…………….Edmund Genest
Aouda, Forester, Narrator, et al…………..Maureen Sebastian
Narrator, Stuart, Captain Speedy, et al…………Jay Leibowitz
 


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- Bob Rendell



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