Around the World in 80 Days
It’s a small world. But rarely has the world felt this small.
The phrase most commonly used in coincidences, as well as a certain annoying Disneyland ride, comes to mind during Walnut Street Theatre’s airtight, thrilling production of "Around the World in 80 Days," which opened on Thursday.
Even for those unfamiliar with the Jules Verne’s classic novel, the title is a giveaway: 19th century English gentleman Phileas Fogg makes a £20,000 bet that he can make the titular journey in the titular time, and brings his dutiful French servant Jean Passepartout along for the ride.
The story has admittedly lost most of its luster. Advanced exploration, documentary film crews and the accessibility of the Internet has given us instant, unfiltered access to the "unknown, exotic lands" that fuel the narrative. A 1956 film is mostly forgettable, and a 2004 remake was a box-office failure.
Likewise, Bill Van Horn’s production has its fair share of obstacles, not only with the story, but also with staging a story with so many characters and locales in a space as cramped as the Independence Studio on 3.
That makes this production all the more stunning. Consistently inventive and endlessly entertaining, Van Horn and four other immensely talented actors turn Verne’s story into a tale of endurance and creativity.
The success starts with Mark Brown’s adaptation. Using only five actors, he blazes through the story, condensing the novel to a quick two hours. While leaving plenty of room for some rather broad comedy, he produces a faithful and fun telling of the story.
While most productions of the show are on a much larger scale, part of the joy of Van Horn’s production is seeing all involved pull off the tale in such an intimate environment.
Andrew Thompson’s set design at first glance seems to be merely a floor map of the world and a wooden wall. However, that wall reveals itself to be an abundance of doors, windows and curtains from which actors, props and set pieces spring forth. Two changeable moving platforms serve as every form of transportation, from ship to train to elephant.
Thompson, along with Amanda Kircher’s lighting, Zachary Brown’s sound, and Mary Folino’s gorgeous Costume Design, give the production a fun, steampunk pageant feel, which perfectly serve the giddiness of the story.
However, all of this would mean nothing if the cast were not so enjoyable. While there were a few stumbles on opening night -- fumbled lines, delayed costume changes -- the five actors pull off an astounding job, switching between characters in the matter of seconds.
Anthony Lawton plays Fogg with a stoic English nature that melts into a wonderful humanity throughout the journey. As Passepartout, Damon Bonetti’s goofy French accent never stops being enjoyable. Sarah Gliko spends most of the production as Indian princess Aouda, and keeps her from being more than merely a plot device.
John Zak, as Detective Figgs, is a living cartoon character, playing it big and keeping it funny. And Van Horn fills in a variety of roles, as much of a diverse actor as he is an inventive director.
This production continues at the Walnut for a couple weeks before embarking on a national tour. It should serve a fitting journey for such a wonderful production.
"Around the World in 80 Days" runs through Feb. 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 at 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. For tickets and info, call 215-574-3550 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.