ALL ABOARD: Brian Webb Russell, Brian Shea, Brad DePlanche, Matthew McGee and Jonelle Marie Meyer see the World.
There’s a dangerous wager made at the start of Around the World in 80 Days, but it’s not the one made by Phileas Fogg, the play’s protagonist. Fogg's bet says that he can circle the globe — mostly by train and steamship — in just over two-and-a-half months, an astonishingly short time for such a feat in 1872, when the Jules Verne novel on which the play is based was published.
We can be excused for guessing that Fogg will win his 20,000 pounds. But the other bet — the more risky one they’re making these days at American Stage — is the one made with the audience by author Mark Brown and director Todd Olson.
What they’re wagering is that live theater, limited as it seems, can convince us we’re watching a ride on a live elephant, a snowy journey on a sledge, a ship’s encounter with a typhoon, and an attack on a train by ruthless Apaches. This wager further dares to claim that one stationary stage in St. Petersburg can take us from London to Paris to Yokohama to Hong Kong, all while employing only five actors, a few set pieces, and some clever costumes. Of course this bet isn’t a conventional one, because if Brown and Olson and crew win, then so does the audience. But if they fail, we walk out of the theater regretting the ticket price and the gall of these rogues in asking the theater to do what clearly belongs to the movies.
The good news is, Brown and Olson win their bet: 80 Days happily takes us on every adventure it aspires to, and also manages, thanks to its five actors, to be extremely funny as it does so. At the center of it all is the vastly talented Brian Webb Russell as Fogg, the fastidious English gentleman who on impulse accepts the bet made one day at the tony Reform Club. Webb’s Fogg is the straight man in this comic tour de force, displaying unflappable British resolve while the world around him — designed shrewdly by scenarist Jerid Fox — goes mad.
Fogg’s quest is complicated by Detective Fix, a pursuer who’s convinced that the world traveler is a bank thief and must be arrested on British soil. Brad DePlanche is fine as Fix, easily persuading us that the detective is coming to like his slippery prey even while he continues to try, here and there on the globe, to nab him. Then there’s Fogg’s servant Passepartout, played by the remarkable Brian Shea with an outrageous French accent (“peace pipe” becomes “piss pop”) and a hyperkinetic loyalty that nearly gets waylaid in an opium den. There’s even a love interest: her name is Aouda, and when Fogg first hears about her, she’s about to be immolated (according to the Indian practice called “suttee”) on the funeral pyre of her rajah husband. Jonelle M. Meyer, who was so amusing just a few weeks ago in Stageworks’ The Divine Sister
, plays Aouda with wonderful dignity, and lets us figure out, long before Fogg does, that she’s fallen in love with him.
And then there’s Matthew McGee, who in this frolic further solidifies his position as the Tampa Bay area’s top comic performer. McGee plays over a dozen small parts in the course of 80 Days
, and with each successive impersonation leads us closer and closer to the enchanted garden of pure comedy, where trees of laughter spring up from a thousand planted funny bones, and the branches are rife with the wholesome chatter of monkey business.
To offer just one example: as Colonel Proctor, McGee is a brilliant caricature (costumed as a cowboy by Mike & Kathy Buck) of a Western American jingoist, utterly contemptuous of foreigners and anxious to have a shootout with anyone who dares contradict him. This hilarious mix of John Wayne and Rush Limbaugh couldn’t be funnier — except that McGee is just as risible as a judge, a ship engineer, a train clerk and a bunch of others. I’m curious: Can McGee play Ionesco, Beckett, Stoppard? Someone challenge this virtuoso with a deeply demanding role. I sense he has further surprises to offer us.
Which doesn’t mean you should miss him in this carnival of pleasures. To put it most simply: 80 Days
is a joy, enchanting and delectable. Brown and Olson make their wager and win it handily.
And we win with them.