PITTSBURGH - A round trip across the world has recently ended its course as Mark Brown's immensely clever and arrestingly delightful adaptation of Jules Verne's classic tale of ground-breaking travel accomplishment, "Around the World in Eighty Days," has recently completed its month-long run at Pittsburgh's O'Reilly Theater.
The production, full of inventive stagecraft and bursting with endearing characters galore, was a rare and enchanting theatrical experience.
On Oct. 2, 1872, a rousing debate arises at an English gentlemen's meetinghouse, the Reform Club. The subject in question - can man really travel the world in a mere 80 days? Amidst the nay-sayers, one man, Phileas Fogg, an affluent man of great mathematical skill and unshakable precision, maintains that if one prepares carefully, this feat can most assuredly be accomplished. Endeavoring to prove to his assertion, Fogg proposes a $20,000 wager to his disbelieving comrades that he will victoriously complete the task. After acquiring the companionship of a newly hired French manservant, Passepartout, the two men voyage through many diverse lands, including India, Hong Kong and even the American Old West, where they encounter a bounty of comically colorful characters and are threatened by several unplanned stops, all while pursued relentlessly by an English detective who suspects Fogg is a bank robber on the lam.
In this uniquely crafted production, sparseness in scenery, props and overall cast size conceded to showcase the talented and enthusiastic ensemble of five performers, all of whom relied greatly on their excellent physical strengths especially to depict such things as bumping along rough terrain and balancing aboard a rocking ship during various episodes of their journeys, many of whom assumed an extensive variety of characters. As Phileas Fogg, Ron Bohmer mixed a pleasing amount of absolute seriousness and confidence with an occasional spark of refreshing gentility and softness, allowing a tender side to his Phileas to brighten a predominately very solemn character.
Jeffrey Kuhn's exaggerated, accented and cocky and sometimes jumpy Passepartout infused the production with an uproariously humorous air.
Taking on a myriad of assorted roles, Tom Beckett breathed highly amusing qualities into such characters as a lisping Reform Club member, a determined Scottish seaman and a slow-witted, spitting western train clerk.
The cast's sole female performer, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, brought a gentle spirit to her primary role of Aouda, an Indian princess who Fogg and Passepartout rescue from dying on her husband's funeral pyre. Kumbhani's additional parts, which included a stuffy Reform Club member and a newspaperman, also brought an engaging energy to the production.
Also managing several roles was Richard B. Watson. Watson's most memorable character was that of Detective Fix, a drole officer who bases his idea that Fogg is a bank robber from nothing more than a sketched stick figure donning a top hat, Fogg's signature fashion accessory. Watson's harmless and dopey portrayal was charmingly reminiscent of a little boy playing at detective.
Enhancing the play's immensely fun atmosphere was the production's set. As if to convey that the play was nothing more than a game, the stage's floor evoked the feeling of a game board. Its four circular levels of separately blocked numbers indicating the number of each day of Fogg's expedition encompassed the number 80 in the middle of the stage, and to the four corners of the floor, various means of transportation were depicted as the "start here" types of symbols one would see on a game board. Also, a large, ever-present clock served as a reminder that time was of the upmost importance to this adventure and, some of the time, unpromisingly scarce.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "Around the World in Eighty Days" embodied an exceptional power to transport audiences away on an unabashedly joyous global escapade. It was truly a prime example of world-class entertainment.
(Reed is theater critic for Weekender.)