Most people are at least passingly familiar with Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in 80 Days, though possibly less so than his oft-adapted seafaring sci-fi classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The former definitely lends itself more readily to a stage production, which is exactly what the Actors Guild of Parkersburg is getting set to present, and quite entertainingly, I might add. This is not a show without imperfections, but the strengths more than make the show worth the price of admission.
The show is adapted by Mark Brown from the Verne novel. What could be a mammoth production is pared down to a cast of five and minimalist moving set pieces. In case you don’t know the story, it’s about the somewhat enigmatic Phileas Fogg, who makes what seems like a foolish bet with his fellow Reform Club members that he can make it around the world in, not surprisingly, 80 days. Though this would hardly be a feat in today’s world, filled with jet and high-speed rail travel, this seems an impossible task in 1870, when the story takes place. Fogg, along with his trusty French manservant Passepartout, set out on what ends up being the adventure of a lifetime. The trip is complicated, however, by a typhoon, an unfinished rail line, an attempted human sacrifice, and a rather daft London police detective name Fix, who becomes convinced that Fogg is financing his trip with the ill-gotten booty from a huge bank robbery and spends the rest of the trip pursuing the intrepid travelers.
Part of the entertainment factor of the show is that, aside from Fogg, played spectacularly by Doug Reed, and Passepartout, portrayed almost as impressively by Charles Wilcox, the myriad lesser parts are played by only three people, David Scheimann, Maggie Angle, and Mara Capati. At any given time, one of these three may leave the stage on one side in one costume, only to pop up on the other side in a different costume portraying any one of a wildly divergent set of characters, including police detectives, elephant wranglers, ticket agents, priests, cowboys, sea captains, and many more. It really does get dizzying at times, which is quite fun, though it requires the audience to stay highly engaged, lest they get lost in all the quick changes and even quicker dialogue.
And that is where the potentially weaker element of the production comes in. By necessity, the show just flies along at a brisk clip. This requires all the characters to be quite energetic and also speak clearly enough to be understood while talking at an extremely fast pace. Frankly, this was not universally true. There were several scenes where I had trouble understanding the dialogue, especially from some of the passing characters. It felt they were sometimes struggling to remember their lines, which, when combined with the need for pace, made the dialogue come out mushy. Another element in which the production struggled was the lighting. There were several scenes where characters remained completely unlit or incompletely lit.
The good news is that I watched a dress rehearsal, which means that those kinds of things are to be partially expected and also to be overlooked. I’m sure that the show’s director, Veronica Fields, will have the technical aspects cleaned up by the time it opens. And I hope that everyone in the cast will have worked hard to clean up their dialogue by then as well.
But even if they don’t, the show is a blast to watch and I’m sure it will be even more fun with an entire audience to respond to the sometimes just plain silly sight gags, pratfalls, and funny lines, of which there are many. And the true centerpieces of the show are the previously mentioned Reed and Wilcox. Doug Reed is, to borrow a phrase from my brother, who accompanied me to the show, spot-on. His accent is perfect, his elocution eloquent, and his characterization flawless. He is one of the most talented folks I’ve ever seen on the Guild’s stage. And Wilcox, definitely the comic relief of the show, is remarkable. One might expect someone portraying a character with such a thick accent to be difficult to understand, but the opposite is true. His lines are delivered with enthusiasm and complete clarity. And his physical acting is simply hilarious.
The show opens Friday, June 9 at 8 pm and runs for two weekends, with subsequent evening performances on June 10, 16, and 17. There will also be 2:30pm matinees on June 11 and 18. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 304-485-1300, or go online to actors-guild.com. You’ll be happy if you do.