Damn the Recession, Full Steampunk Ahead!
If you can spare a few bucks from under the mattress, Laguna Playhouse will take you on a rollicking ride Around the World in 80 Days

Irony abounds in the Laguna Playhouse’s production of that chestnut of 19th century escapist fiction Around the World in 80 Days. And it’s got nothing to do with the actual play. No straightforward adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, regardless of how modernized it may be, traffics in high-falutin’ literary currency. Plot-heavy, character-driven adventure stories aren’t exactly Oedipus on the theme or metaphor scales.

So where is the irony? It’s that in a time of great economic angst, an exhilarating piece of theater has come along to take weary, fretful minds off their troubles for even a couple of hours—but who the hell can afford it?

Theater in the 'round
Pat Kirk
Theater in the 'round

In economically flush times, when disposable income would flow like manna from up high, Mark Brown’s 2001 adaptation of Verne’s story would be a certifiable cash cow. It is remarkably well-put-together, riotously funny and manages a highly difficult maneuver: imbuing an oft-told, 140-year-old story with white-knuckle intensity.

Only the bean counters deep in the bowels of the playhouse’s vault know how well this production, which closes this weekend, has done. Let’s hope it bucked the dispiriting trend affecting nearly every theater in the country, large and small, because if any current production is worth seeing, it’s this one.

Not that it’s particularly great or meaningful theater. Anyone familiar with the original novella, the 1956 film starring David Niven, or any of the myriad other treatments (everyone from Orson Welles to the Three Stooges has tackled the tale) knows the basic 411 of this evergreen road saga: Tightly wound English millionaire Phileas Fogg bets 20,000 quid that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, using nothing more high-tech than railways and steam engines.

He commands his newly hired valet, Passepartout, to pack a couple of bags, and off they go, encountering everything from opium dens to high-seas mutinies in the process. While Fogg is obviously obsessed with successfully winning his gentlemanly wager, hapless Passepartout must deal with the shadowy Mr. Fix, a Scotland Yard detective who suspects Fogg is a wanted criminal fleeing England in possession of a wheelbarrow of diamonds.

At the time of the novel’s publication, the world was flush with such technological innovations as transcontinental railroads and the opening of the Suez Canal, lending credence to the possibility that a big chunk of time could be sliced from a voyage around the globe that took Ferdinand Magellan’s ill-fated expedition three years to accomplish 300 years earlier.

Of course, a lot has changed since then—like, men walking on the moon and stuff—so the idea of an 80-day circumnavigation doesn’t exactly fire the imagination like it did in Verne’s time.

But as quaint as the idea might be to sophisticated 21st-century minds, there’s no denying the story’s sense of adventure. To make any treatment of it work, Fogg’s adventure must be made to feel as real and daunting for contemporary audiences as it must have felt for Verne’s readers.

Director Michael Brown achieves this by breakneck pacing and five supremely talented actors portraying 39 roles. Events and characters are hurled at the audience, and the joy of this production is that, regardless of the high-octane pace, every plot point is hit effortlessly.

Matthew Floyd Miller’s Fogg is the straight man in the proceedings. Quibble all you want with the Anglo-centric notion that an English gentleman graced with fortitude, a stiff upper lip and good breeding (along with a limitless supply of English pounds) is capable of success in any endeavor, but that’s the type of character Verne created. Miller manages to inject this rather thin, anal-retentive figure with just enough human dimension to excuse the conceit.

The real humanity, however, is found in Gendell Hernandez’s Passepartout. While Fogg strides across the world like an automated Colossus, Passepartout sweats and struggles on the edge of a nervous breakdown, frantically trying to serve his master and preserve his own ass.

Rounding out the cast are three exceptionally talented performers: Howard Swain’s scheming Mr. Fix (along with eight other diverse characters); Anna Bullard’s Dorothy Lamour, uh, that is, the beautiful princess Aouda, whom Fogg rescues from a burning pyre because, when not enslaving three-fifths of the world in the 19th century, a good Englishman was rescuing savages from their barbaric cultural customs; and Mark Farrell, who shines in a number of quick-change roles.

The program makes a big deal of how Brown integrated elements of “steampunk” into his adaptation. But other than the fact that the story takes place in what appear to be the guts of an enormous pocket watch, there seem to be only a few gestures toward the aesthetic that such forgettable films as Wild Wild West and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have dabbled in.

But maybe what’s really “punk” here is the sheer chutzpah of a production relying mainly on the efforts of phenomenally talented actors. Hell, everybody else is cobbling together a variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet these days, so why should actors be any different?

Around the World in 80 Days at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Moulton Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sun. $30-$65.

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