Mark Brown's zippy adaptation of Jules Verne's adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days, now delighting all at A.D. Players, is a grand example of meta-theater. We, the audience, are taken out of quotidian reality and plopped firmly in the lap of good old-fashioned playacting. We're kids again, running around the neighborhood pretending we're sailing the Caribbean on a pirate ship, or dodging arrows from marauding Indians in our backyard.
Inside the safety of the theater, the experience is all deliciously phony. Never for a moment do we think we're not watching a well-oiled show. This is exquisite theater magic at its most magical. When what looks like two costume shop clothes racks are pushed together, two pillows nestled at the top rail, and a dryer's aluminum air vent hung from that rail, what do you see? Why an elephant at once. Great steamships are little toys, lifted in the swells by the actors; the railway car is conjured by two wooden boxes; the deck and masts of a boat are made out of step ladders; a train's wheels are but two spinning open umbrellas. It's all so clever and fun-filled. This production laughs with us, poking us that theater doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. It can be silly and goofy, anything your mind imagines.
Even better, of course, is that only five actors play the 39 characters whizzing around the world. These non-stop thespians get plenty of help from three stage assistants who keep the props materializing, and sound effects/musician Jerry Poland, plainly visible in the side box where his toots, whistles, and guitar riffs add delightful punctuation to the whirligig going on below.
You know the story, don't you? Aristocratic Phileas Fogg (Kevin Michael Dean), obsessive and driven by mathematical precision, bets the members of his august men's club that with today's technology and innovation, it's entirely probable, nay, a certainty, that he can circumnavigate the globe in precisely 80 days. Railways have recently connected the Asian subcontinent, while fast clipper ships, driven by steam, ply the seas. A man's journey can be calculated to the minute. Why this is 1872, my good man, the height of Victorian can-do spirit.
What Fogg doesn't know is that at this precise moment, someone has robbed the Bank of England, and the description matches Fogg. Detective Fix is also a man of absolute certainty, and he believes Fogg, who is now escaping under dubious circumstances with a new French valet Passepartout (Braden Hunt), is his man. Intrepid like a cut-rate Holmes, he will follow and capture.
Fogg's adventures carry him from London to Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York City, and triumphantly back to London. Brown is faithful to Verne, and omits the balloon trip over the Alps that was such a memorable scene in the 1956 Oscar-winning movie, starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and Shirley MacLaine. The scene was cinematic, but was not in Verne, so out it went for Brown.
Along the way, the travelers add another to their retinue, Princess Aouda (Skyler Sinclair) who Passepartout saves from burning alive in a suttee ceremony. She's the spark who will later thaw icy Fogg. Craig Griffin and Luis Quintero ably round out the cast, playing a global assortment of mahouts, judges, conductors, an old biddy in drag, an opium den proprietor, ship captains, and wild west jingoists.
Throughout, their adventures are burnished with lovely silly touches. On the transcontinental railroad from San Francisco, Passepartout saves the day again by uncoupling the train from underneath. He uses a GI Joe doll, like a comic book superhero, to perform his derring-do. Aouda does a neat backward somersault when the train suddenly halts. Fogg's temporary jail is a box on which he holds two sticks. A newsboy (Sinclair again) runs through the play with breaking news of Fogg's progress. The world globe is an enormous balloon.
Michael Mullins' design is all backstage detritus turned into wonder, like that applause-getting elephant. Jack Jacobs' lighting is appropriately splashy; and Danielle Hodgins' costumes, with quick-change velcro, I suppose, are colorful and picture book perfect.
This is all wonderful fun, a child's view of theater, and one we must never grow out of. Director Philip Lehl deftly handles the light touch of it all, giving the show an improvisational, antic tone that is just right.
For children of all ages, this trip around the world with these dauntless loons is one trip you won't forget. Pack your bags and start smiling.
Around the World in Eighty Days continues through September 30 at 7:30 pm Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 pm Saturday and Sunday matinees at A.D. Players at the Jeannette & L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $35-$70.