The Victorians were increasingly fascinated with stories of adventure, as technological advances in travel made their world smaller and more accessible. It didn't hurt that so much of that world map was colored an imperial red. In his famous novel Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne makes fun of the British, creating in Phileas Fogg the kind of imperturbable Englishman who ventures into foreign lands with no concern for local tradition or custom, taking his tea and kippers wherever he goes, being careful to shave and don his dinner jacket when dining in the thickest jungle. "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun," as Noel Coward observed.
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Fogg makes a bet at his gentleman's club that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days — not quite as fast as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, who can girdle the earth in forty minutes, but pretty speedy, nonetheless. He's accompanied on his journey by Passepartout, a Frenchman who's as acrobatic, voluble and emotional as Fogg is stiff and inexpressive. (Passepartout is a slightly more inquisitive traveler than his master. In India, he begins reading a guidebook, but he runs into trouble when he enters a pagoda with his shoes on — an issue covered only later in the book.) The two are followed by a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly believes Fogg is a thief, and they encounter many adventures, most notably rescuing Aouda, a beautiful Indian woman who's about to be set ablaze on her husband's funeral pyre.
In Mark Brown's staged version of Around the World in 80 Days, Fogg learns to set aside his meticulous insistence on numbers and rules in the interest of human warmth. But — and this may be a problem inherent in making a play out of the novel — the script is static. Over and over again, some character or other explains where the travelers are and either what's just happened or what is about to happen. Over and over again, we watch the actors jiggling their bodies up and down as they simulate the movement of trains and other forms of travel. The moments that work best are those when something is actually happening on the stage: the ingenious creation of an elephant from a variety of props, for instance, and the dazzling scene when Passepartout rescues the unconscious Aouda.
Around the World in 80 Days
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
It's also entertaining to watch the five actors play dozens of roles. Sam Sandoe centers the show with his portrayal of the upright Fogg. Using different accents and changing posture, headgear or clothing, Randy Moore provides all kinds of wonderful vignettes as every character the group encounters on its travels; particularly fine is his slow, thick-tongued Mudge. Jamie Ann Romero's Cockney newsboy is hard to understand, but she's rather sweet later as Aouda. Unfortunately, Elgin Kelley, who plays a number of roles (including Detective Fisk), mugs to such an extent that it's hard to watch her. The wonder of this production is the elastic-limbed Matthew Mueller as Passepartout, with his forceful Peter Sellers accent and multitude of expressions, from incredulous to confident, preening to simply baffled.
This is not a first-rate play, and I'm not sure why Philip Sneed included it in his inaugural season as artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival — even choosing to direct it himself. It's occasionally fun, even educational, but ultimately it goes nowhere.