The folks at Rover Dramawerks
are gutsy, to say the least. First, in tight economic times they move their production to the Courtyard Theater in Plano, a medium sized proscenium theater, twice the size of their usual performance space nearby. Second, when they can’t get the rights to a tried and true stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 epic novel classic Around the World in 80 Days, they simply write their own…very gutsy. The tale concerns a wager between a club of crusty English gentlemen that one member, stuffier than most Phileas Fogg, can win if he manages to circumnavigate the globe in precisely eighty days. Lots of exotic locales, fabulously costumed natives, steam locomotives, eclectic rafts, ocean liners adrift in typhoons, elephants. Easy stuff to reproduce on stage, right?
Not to say that Rover Dramawerks is the first to attempt adaptation. They’re in good company. Orson Welles produced and starred in a totally forgettable stage version of the show with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. An episode of the classic CBS television series, Have Gun -Will Travel, entitled “Fogg Bound”, broadcast on December 3, 1960, had the series’ hero, Palladin (Richard Boone), escorting main character Phileas Fogg (Patric Knowles) through part of his journey. A 1989 three-part TV mini-series starred Pierce Brosnan as Fogg, Eric Idle as French servant Passepartout, and Peter Ustinov as the show’s villain Fix. The best-known movie version, released in 1956, starred David Niven and Cantinflas with a huge cast of movie celebrities. The movie earned five Oscars, out of eight nominations. It’s an appealing challenge many have taken on.
In RoverDramawerks case the gamble is something of a success. Feeling a bit more like Louis L’Amour in places than Jules Verne, the show manages to inform the ambience of a rambling, eccentric race against superior odds around the world in an era when speed and travel weren’t words uttered in the same breath. The company had a double stroke of luck in the casting of their protagonist Fogg and his nemesis Fix. Embodying the unflappable, always punctual Phileas Fogg, local graphic artist Gary Anderson brings a genteel command to the role and sustains his demeanor with Sean Connery-like aplomb. The rakish working stiff detective Fix dominates the action in every scene he appears. Portraying a lovably bumbling villain who finally sees the error of his ways, Mike Hathaway somehow locates interesting dimensions in a character that bounces erratically along between melodrama stereotype and slapstick pratfall. As in Three Stooges. For some odd reason, Hathaway also portrays a minor character at the gentleman’s club. This is a confusing choice as the audience wonders if as Fix he’s just donning a disguise, not appearing as a completely different (and inconsequential) character. He takes his final bow in the “other guise.” A mistake. The casting of other main character roles is not quite so fortunate. Coby Cathey as Fogg’s French servant Passepartout effectively hacks the French language to bits every time he opens his mouth. American actors don’t generally do accents well, certainly confirmed by Cathey’s withering delivery. “Mon Dieu” is not pronounced “Mon duh.” Fogg acquires a lady friend along his voyage, an Indian woman named Aouda, who accompanies him back to England and endures the rigors of the journey as involved as any man. A role with interesting possibility. In Rover’s production, Aouda is played by the attractive but inexplicably Caucasian Sasha Truman-McGonnell. She seems stiff and bored, like a well-to-do matron suffering through a routine obligatory carriage ride around the park. Even when Fix grabs her around the torso as they are nearly swept overboard during a storm on board a ship, she hardly reacts, out of character for a proper Victorian lady.
Lesser characters ranging from ship’s captains and train engineers to marauding redskins, newspaper hawkers, cavalry officers, court judges and circus performers are played by an ensemble of six game, enthusiastic individuals. Notable among them is Nancy Lamb who creates lively believable snapshots of both genders. Part of the real fun in this production is seeing who shows up next wearing some outlandish get–up and speaking a new lingo. “If I am not always what I ought to be, ” Verne once wrote, “my characters will be what I should like to be.” In the spunky variety portrayed by the lesser characters in Rover’s production, the core vision of Verne’s teeming humanity gets effectively enlivened. And that’s what an epic should do.
This reviewer hopes Rover Dramawerks will go back to their smaller performance space where the confinement inspires invention and the intimacy forces nuanced characterization. Around the World in 80 Days won’t win any major theatre awards, but it sure offers entertaining possibilities that beat staring at the TV screen any time. Runs through March 21. http://www.roverdramawerks.com 972.849.0358