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Theater review of 'Around the World in 80 Days' at Round House

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, May 13, 2010; C01

You could make a zany night of "Around the World in 80 Days," Mark Brown's action-packed reduction of the Jules Verne novel, and the Round House Theatre production certainly indulges in its share of pratfalls and spit-takes. Yet director Nick Olcott's approach seems relatively restrained. It's plainly vaudevillian, but the show is (usually) less a jab in the ribs than a wink and a smile.

Maintaining that thin aura of decorum looks tricky, for Brown's script appears to shove Verne's tale toward farce. A mere five players don unlikely hats, fake beards and silly mustaches to impersonate figures from all over the globe, which means the actors do a lot of clowning around.

It's sort of like the literary travesties of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, only not as delectably low-rent and irreverent. This is a kid-friendly lark: Think "The 39 Steps," which used four versatile actors to play all the roles in a sendup of the Hitchcock film.

But again, the spirit isn't satire so much as straight knockabout comedy. The plot is a pure race against time: Londoner Phileas Fogg bets the members of his stuffy gentlemen's club that he can circle the globe in 80 days, and we watch as he methodically hops trains and commandeers everything from ships to elephants trying to make his deadline.

Misha Kachman's set doesn't try to re-create the exotic locales or the means of transportation; instead, illusions are created via sophisticated sound effects (courtesy of Matthew M. Nielson's design), with actors swaying as if on a ship's deck or jostling aboard a train. The faster the vehicle or vessel moves, the more extravagant the wiggling gets.

Kachman's design does feature a revolving belt on the stage floor that's uncannily like a baggage carousel -- a neat image for such a globe-hopping tale. The set also has an architectural centerpiece that looks rather like a ship, although it doubles as an elephant when Fogg and friends make a near-escape in India. This is pure make-believe stuff, but Olcott and the ever-game cast create a spirit that makes it easy to play along.

James Konicek pushes the silliness to its furthest latitudes, growling ridiculously as a pirate and wobbling inexplicably (but amusingly) in a bit part that lasts mere seconds. Sasha Olinick sputters aggressively in his main role as Fogg's French servant, Passepartout, while Ethan Bowen goes for the droll rather than something more demonstrative as the dogged English detective who's convinced Fogg is a major thief. Tuyet Thi Pham is the spunky love interest, and Mitchell H?bert's Fogg is the calm at the center, delivering the character's unflappable declarations with wry precision.

Brown's near-campy adaptation is not to be confused with Laura Eason's elegant version for Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, which stopped at Baltimore's Center Stage a few months ago. Eason's show -- more satisfying for adults, if not for kids -- was a higher art, with cool aesthetic rigor characterizing the upscale Victorian design and the pinpoint acting. Brown's just out for a theatrical goof, and Olcott makes sure this toy train runs on time.

Around the World

in 80 Days

By Mark Brown, from the novel by Jules Verne. Directed by Nick Olcott. Costumes, Rosemary Pardee; lighting design, Colin K. Bills. About 2 1/2 hours. Through May 30 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or go to http://www.roundhousetheatre.org.

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