Saturday, April 21, 2012

Theatre review: "Around the World in 80 Days" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 22nd April 2012..

Man overboard! His name is Tom Beckett. He flails. He yells. He sinks under the weight of 16 roles in Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 days now at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Moreover Beckett plays everyone nearly the same, despite changes of costume, wigs and accents. He may not be solely responsible. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is at the helm of the weak vessel of a script and doesn’t seem to have much control over how her crew carries out their tasks. Inconsistently, two other actors play their roles fairly straightforward, another looks almost devoid of definition and the fifth veers back and forth amid everyone else’s styles.  

Expectations may have been high that this would be another hoot, equal to the recent hilarious re-take on Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. And Around the World….does seem to have that potential, given that just a few actors as a vast variety of characters must pantomime complex actions in physically complicated scenes.

Unlike Steps, a loony mystery full of clichés, Verne’s famous book has a different premise being a fantasy adventure without an obvious point, almost a travelogue. Certainly there are scenes where things actually happen en route, but much time and energy is devoted to depicting the travel, with a whole lot of shaking going on, usually representing being on trains and ships, the play’s major venture into amusing movement. Mark Brown often makes this feel that many stops en route are just names, not places, looking about as colorful as a drive from Scranton to Altoona to Uniontown even if, somewhere, having to replace a tire or getting lost in a local mall while depending on the kindness of strangers, yet always able buy what you need.

However, that matter-of-fact point of view is consistent with how Phileas Fogg, the initiator of this journey, views the world. He’s goal-oriented, doing his damndest to win a bet, rather than being interested in tourism. After a while, his story more and more  becomes a collection of pins on maps, although director Dodge could have made this more interesting by having her scenic designer create an actual map for the audience to follow.  

In 1872, wealthy bachelor Fogg is convinced that, given new technology, it is possible to make such a trip and bets a fortune with fellow club members that he can do it. He hires a Frenchman Passepartout as his valet. They travel lightly but with plenty of money. They are also followed by Detective Fix who’s convinced that Fogg is a fleeing bank robber. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue Aouda, a young Indian woman about to be burned alive with the body of her freshly deceased husband. She becomes a travel companion for the rest of the sometimes delayed trip. 
The character of Fogg could be interesting. Although described by his compatriots as “similar to a Madame Tussaud wax figure” he certainly has the potential to be more than played here by Ron Bohmer. His Fogg never becomes amusingly eccentric, consistent with some of his habits, nor a take-off on too much self-control, nor inherently charming and likable. Bohmer or Dodge do have him suddenly lose his composure a couple of times, but that looks weird and overdone.  
As Passepartout Jeffrey Kuhn never overplays, getting agreeable mileage out of a French accent and a few mispronunciations but he doesn’t come across with much of the inherent charm. And Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s version of Aouda seems capably centered in the same kind of reality as Kuhn’s performance.
Meanwhile Richard B. Watson gets stuck with shtick as Detective Fix, given repetitive bits of business by Dodge and an anachronistic musical stinger for TV and radio’s Dragnet. Surely she or sound designer Zach Moore could have found appropriate music from the period. Watson’s Fix mugs incessantly but, as eight other characters, the actor never gets as excessive as Beckett.
Had this been cast using Pittsburgh actors instead of these undoubtedly capable people, the production might have been more engaging locally, allowing us to watch artists whom we know and admire.
To Dodge’s credit she keeps the pace relentless, making the production less drawn-out that it could be. Such a pace keeps the performers vigorously doubling, amusingly swiftly, switching costumes. But, along with such energy, as if affected by the intensity, the actors say nearly everything as if working Benedum Center without microphones. Given that this is about a race, they could be justified in racing through the words, and with  Brown’s simple, utilitarian text, no one loses. Brown wrote a story, not much of a play.  
Suitable for children.  
Around the World in 80 Days continues through May 13th at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

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