They say that travel changes you, forces you out of your comfort zone, pushes you to see new cultures and new people, eat strange foods and hear odd sounds.
But imagine the idea of packing up and heading from say, London to Bombay, in 1872. A hours-long train ride from Charing Cross Station to Dover, then on to Calais, and then to Suez in a seven-day boat ride, and from there another 13 days at sea before setting foot on Indian soil. You get the idea. The world is wide and vast, and even though there were steamers and telegraphs and gas lighting and the feeling that we, as a human race, were on the move, if someone said, “I’m going to travel around the word in 80 days,” they’d have been regarded as crazy.
Which is where we encounter the five actors—and one Foley artist—at A.D. Players, which brings to life Mark Brown’s delightful adaption of the Jules Verne classic. It’s London, October 1872, and the Daily Telegraph notes the last section of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway that runs between Rothal and Allahabad is now complete, meaning it’s possible to go across the whole word in 80 days. And Phileas Fogg, he of the precise schedule and the kind of guy who likes his shaving water at exactly 80 degrees Fahrenheit, tells his chums at the Reform Club that he can do it. And he’s putting 20,000 quid up to prove it.
So, with a carpet bag filled with two shirts, three pairs of stockings, a roll of bank notes, and a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental Railway, Steam Transit, and General Guide, he hits the road with his trusty servant Passepartout. What could possibly go wrong?
The result is a madcap romp lovingly directed by Philip Lehl, who taps into a sense of playfulness and delicious imagination, whizzing the five actors playing 39 parts around the George Theatre stage using all manner of boxes and ladders and hats and sheets and carts and coats and rope to realize everywhere from Hong Kong to the Pacific Ocean to the American Great Plains. A change of headwear here, a change of accent there, and voila, the audience is happily pulled along on the next leg of Fogg’s outrageous caper.
While the idea of this kind of “climb up to attic, find cool stuff, and tell a story with it” is hardly new, it’s delightfully campy and often sweetly sincere in the hands of the half-dozen artists realizing the story. Kevin Michael Dean’s Phileas Fogg is an upright Englishman, clipped of delivery, droll in his rejoinders, a gentleman whether he’s on a small craft in a storm-tossed sea or sitting playing diamonds with his fellow club members.
Braden Hunt’s turn as Passeportout is sheer fun. Luis Quintero, Craig Griffin, and Skylar Sinclair all take on multiple roles, switching personas with big energy and great glee. Griffin’s turn as the clueless Detective Fix pursuing Fogg around the world with the intensity of Inspector Javert combined with the bumbling antics of Inspector Clouseau is amusement personified. Sinclair continues her ascent on Houston stages, giving sweet sentiment to Aouda, the woman Fogg and Passeportout rescue from India. Quintero proves himself master of the quick change, morphing from British Consul to a ship clerk to an officious judge, among several others, with ease. The accents aren’t always pitch-perfect, but that’s a minor quibble against the multiple personalities these five inhabit across the evening.
Danielle Hodgins’ costumes are sassily Steampunk, and are vivid against Michael Mullins' sparse stage, which perfectly captures the catch-as-catch-can nature of turning a rolling cart into an elephant or making a ship out of some ladders. Ryan Carlson’s enchanting sound design that lends an energy to the actors’ adventures, is augmented beautifully by Gerry Poland’s solo Foley artist turn, whose endless sound effects are almost a Greek chorus amid the stage antics.
All together, Around the World in 80 Days in an unabashedly old-school caper. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, even as it touches on serious themes like duty, honoring one’s debts, forcing oneself to improvise when things go wrong, and what it means to give and take love. This is a show that entertains, that showcases the power of imagination, that reminds us what it is to play and explore. It also serves to remind us that while the world is wide and vast, and we can traverse its expanse more easily now than we did 150 years ago, we should never, ever lose the sense of wonder that comes from finding ourselves in new and different places.
Thru Sept. 30. Tickets from $35. A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer Rd. 713-526-2721. More info and tickets at adplayers.org.