Review: “Around the World in 80 Days,” Epic Adventure Without Leaving Your Seat

The Indiana Repertory Theatre hosted the last opening night of their 2009-2010 season this weekend. Around the World in 80 Days finishes out a fine season at the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) with a big bang, offering an epic globe trotting adventure. At the Sunday matinee, I gazed from the balcony at a sea of people peppered with Indianapolis kids, families, senior citizens and singles. The latest Indianapolis theatre offering from the IRT is for the kid in everyone, presenting a hearty story with fine acting, beautiful design and tremendous storytelling. Catch it on the IRT’s main stage now through May 16, 2010. Head to the heart of Indianapolis downtown for IRT’s magnificent production of Around the World in 80 Days.

Written by Jules Verne as a novel in 1873, Around the World in 80 Days is the story of one Victorian Englishman’s extraordinary trip to traverse the globe in under three months. Penned just after the opening of the Suez Canal, which allowed ships to sail to Asia without sailing around Africa, and the completion of a transcontinental railroad connecting the East and West coast of the United States, Verne was no doubt inspired by a transforming world. This literary visionary imagined many inventions prior to their creation including skyscrapers, submarines, helicopters, film projectors and jukeboxes, but could have never imagined a world of instantaneous connection. Nor could he have imagined that his novel, Around the World in 80 Days, would fascinate and delight audiences living in such a world centuries later. But the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production proves Verne’s genius through their own strokes of ingenuity.

In Mark Brown’s adaptation of Verne’s beloved novel, Phileas Fogg (Jeff Cummings) is flanked on stage by only four other actors, all donning various parts, charged with the task of peopling, quite literally, an entire world. As Fogg travels the world on a bet, his trusty servant, Passpartout (La Shawn Banks), and he encounter countless obstacles and adventures. From the bumbling Detective Fixx (John Lister), hot on the heels of a mistakenly identified criminal to the beautiful Aouda (Minta Gandhi), a young Indian girl who Fogg saves from religious sacrifice and a whole host of other characters, deftly played by Zack Buell, Fogg gets much more than he bargained or accounted for.

Excitement and imagination are built right into the Mark Brown’s adaptation, which calls for only five actors. The delightful device of seeing such a small number of actors create such a large cast of characters forces each audience member to call on their own imaginations as they are guided through Fogg’s escapades. “It’s all part of the fun as they leap from one cultural cliche to another in Peter Sellers-like affectionate mockery,” says Artistic Director Janet Allen in her program notes. Director William Brown ran with the importance of imagination throughout the show, as he shares his own similar propensities in his program notes, “I was the kind of kid that put a towel around his head and pretended to be a maharajah.”

The production moves easily in and out of this childhood imagination territory, presenting both realistic moments of emotion and fantastical moments of sheer adventure, as the cast pretends to ride an elephant or a train as it jumps a bridge. William Brown’s work with his ensemble of characters creates a world in which they very well could be children pretending the entire story in a backyard somewhere. The freedom that permeates the ensemble performance throughout reflects this childlike quality, but also balances a sense of maturity that keeps the cast and the story moving Eastward on a global trek.

Each actor captures the audiences’ collective heart, each in their own way. As the French servant Passpartout, La Shawn Banks gives a joyful and quirky performance. Banks creates a loyal, affable, trustworthy and open minded character that easily becomes the darling clown of the show. In the role of the servant, Banks has license to say, do or wear anything. The actor and production team push this license as far as they possibly can, creating a wonderful and lovable jester.

In the main role of Phileas Fogg, Jeff Cummings makes an interesting and believable transition from bland and salty to flavorful even spicy with each step East he takes around the world. As the Victorian gentleman, Fogg is intended to serve as the barometer for “normal.” Cummings deftly accomplishes this without a heavy hand, never limiting his fellow actors as they push to new levels of insanity. Yet as his measured and stuffy nature begins to change, he remains a barometer for normal, having learned a few lessons throughout the adventure to show that even “normal” is transient. Cummings makes the biggest leap from beginning to end in a wonderfully believable way.

As the only woman on stage, Minta Gandhi holds her own on this madcap adventure. Playing a series of thick eyebrow-ed, working class men early on in the show, Gandhi proves that she, too, has a transformative ability. But her main purpose throughout the show is as Fogg’s ingenue love interest. As the second part of the romance equation, Gandhi is not given the best or the most fun material. However, she is beautiful, elegant and understanding opposite Cummings in a series of lavish period gowns.

In a close call with Banks’ Passpartout, Zack Buell has perhaps the most comedic part in Around the World in 80 Days. Listed in the program as “Everybody Else,” he is in practically every scene, playing every nationality Fogg encounters from Indian to Chinese and even three types of American: gun slinging, Native and Brooklyn. In these roles, Buell represents the script’s awareness of itself and its conventions, turning up conveniently when needed as just the person the adventurers were looking for. Though each of Buell’s parts are played with only a cursory awareness of the intricacies of each culture’s accent and dress, this interpretation is clearly a choice, which fits well in Verne’s imagined world. In short, Buell was a hilarious surprise each time he opened his mouth, transforming in the vein of Monty Python as the story progressed.

Finally, as Detective Fixx, John Lister gave an admirable performance rounding out the story as the bumbling yet antagonistic police officer. As Fixx, Lister had a fun rapport with both Banks’ Passpartout and Buell’s myriad of characters. He even donned a few different faces for himself, helping to further the story.

Aside from a stellar script, imaginative director and vivid performers, Around the World in 80 Days was also a visual feast with plenty of theatre magic in various design elements. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet boldly drew on the existing exotic design of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s main stage. By pulling similar texture, detail, levels and colors from the theater walls onto the stage, Depinet cleverly pulled the audience on stage as well. He created a look that could be Victorian in one scene, Indian in another and so on. Working within the framework of director William Brown’s imagination theme, Depinet created both moments of stage magic with fully established locations and moments of stage magic that required the actors and audience to use their imagination. Depinet created a balance of both, leaving us fully amazed and with exercised brains.

With so many characters on stage played by so few actors, costume designer Rachel Anne Healy had her work cut out for her. But she deftly rose to the occasion. The looks she put on stage were not only luxuriously expensive looking and exotic, but also donned in seconds as the actors scrambled in quick changes  backstage. Because the cultural cliches of the show were noted in Janet Allen’s program notes, Healy’s “costumey” interpretations of various cultural looks fit easily into the show. Painting with both broad strokes and fine detail, Healy’s costumes established place and furthered the story, but never stole center stage. That is, of course, with the exception of the show stopping gowns Healy created for Gandhi’s Aouda.

Overall Around the World in 80 Days is an exciting and adventurous show that taps into the inner child in all of us. Catch this wonderful Indianapolis performing arts piece now through May 16 at the IRT in Indianapolis downtown. After the show, grab a bite to eat at any of these great Indianapolis restaurants or Indianapolis bars.

Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover Indianapolis art to Indianapolis sports and everything in between. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Get out in Indy and find some fun!”

Around the World in 80 Days
Now through May 16, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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