Lighthearted Play is Precise, a Little TOO Precise

Phileas Fogg wagers half his fortune that he can travel around the world in 80 days and engages in a series of adventures in pursuit of the prize.  This is Around the World in 80 Days now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Mark Brown clearly has intimate knowledge of Jules Verne’s classic novel as his adaptation is nearly a word for word match of the book.  This is both the play’s greatest strength and weakness.  It’s strong because one gets a very faithful telling of the story.  But it’s weak because Brown uses long stretches of exposition to explain what is happening as opposed to using the efficiency of the medium to show the audience what is happening.  This takes some of the zip out of the play, though a cast of 5 strong character actors do restore a bit of pep through their quality performances.

Carl Beck returns to the Playhouse to direct this comedy and hasn’t lost a step.  His sense of timing remains as tight as ever and he still has a keen eye for a good gag.  Beck led his actors to very solid performances, though the overall pace and cue pickups could have been quicker in tonight’s performance.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek gives a very restrained performance in the role of Phileas Fogg.  As Fogg, Clark-Kaczmarek presents a rather eccentric English gentleman whose need for preciseness borders on the obsessive-compulsive.  Indeed, he seems more machine than human.  Fogg takes the bet to travel around the world purely to prove he can do it, showing little desire for the money or even to see the sights of the planet as he spends most of his time alone planning his schedule.

This changes when Fogg makes the decision to save the rani of a dead rajah from being a human sacrifice.  From that point onwards, Clark-Kaczmarek does a wonderful job of gradually revealing the great heart of Fogg as he transitions into a real human being as he slowly falls in love with the rani, Aouda, and builds a bond of friendship with his servant, Passepartout.

Ablan Roblin is quite amusing as Fogg’s servant, Jean Passepartout.  Passepartout takes the job to enjoy a quiet life, having led an energetic and adventurous one prior to the start of the play.  His life is immediately turned upside down as Fogg makes his wager on Passepartout’s first day on the job.

Roblin imbues Passepartout with a terrific sense of loyalty as he is feverishly dedicated to his master.  He also ably handles the comedy of the character as he is at the center of most of the play’s misadventures. From his mugging at a pagoda for wearing shoes to a wonderful drunken defense of Fogg’s character in an opium den to his constant botching of the name of an inept detective, Roblin made the most out of the funny Frenchman.  His French accent was a little too thick at some points, so he does need to pull it back a touch so his dialogue isn’t lost.

Teri Fender’s primary role is that of Aouda, the rani saved by Passepartout and Fogg, but she really shines in some of the character roles she plays.  Most entertaining were her portrayals of Sullivan, Fogg’s former servant who is fired for bringing him shaving water two degrees too cold and as a “man on the street” reporting the news surrounding Fogg and his wager.

As Sullivan, Ms Fender drops the timbre of her voice, bends her knees, and slouches to make for a very convincing elderly man who makes some very polite verbal ripostes in regards to his termination.

Ms Fender brings a youthful energy and exuberance to her “man on the street” as he pops in and out to report on Fogg’s goings-on as well as engages in an exhausting monologue explaining how Fogg is going to go around the world in 80 days.

It is always a pleasure to watch Monty Eich perform and he is able to use his chameleon-like acting powers to the fullest in this show as he portrays a myriad of characters, each with a distinctive voice and bearing.  In the blink of an eye, Eich transforms from a pompous member of the Reform Club to a southern train conductor reminiscent of Andy Devine to the wife of a reverend.

But his best role in the show is that of Detective Fix who chases Fogg in the mistaken belief that he is a bank robber.  Eich got the biggest laughs of the night as he stumbled and bumbled his way across the world to arrest Fogg.  A few of his best moments were his shooting himself in the foot during an Apache attack and being swatted by the English consulate in India.  And his chemistry with Ablan Roblin and Ben Beck made for some excellent give and take in their shared scenes.

Ben Beck also gets to dip into his own formidable bag of tricks as he portrays a slew of characters.  Some of the highlights of his performances were his servant narrator who sagely gives the idiotic Fix a plan to detain Fogg in Hong Kong while he waits for the arrest warrant, a sea captain (bearing a strong resemblance to the Gorton Fisherman) who pilots Fogg to Yokohama during a typhoon, and the blustering Colonel Proctor who’s willing to duel at the drop of a hat, but ends up proving a formidable ally when the chips are down.

I found the sets of Bryan McAdams to be some of the most elegant I have seen at the Playhouse.  There was both a simpleness and a richness to his scenery as the show slid from Fogg’s opulent home, to the steamers the characters sailed on, to the various locales they visited. Likewise, Jim Othuse’s lighting matched the locales and moods of the plays perfectly.  From the sinful red of an opium den to the swirling blues and lightning of a mighty typhoon, Othuse never missed a beat.  John Gibilisco’s sound was always on target and Georgiann Regan’s costumes were top notch from the finely tailored suits of Fogg and Passepartout to the numerous character outfits utilized by Beck and Eich to the elegant dresses of Aouda.

At the end, I think the play provides a night of lighthearted distraction.  Brown’s desire to do a nearly ad verbatim version of the novel keeps the play from being all it could be, but solid direction and talented actors help pick up the slack.

Around the World in 80 Days plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Feb 12.  Performances are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for student ($28 and $18 on Wednesdays).  For tickets, call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Dodge Street in Omaha, NE.

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