ADAPTATION NEEDS TO MAKE EVERY DAY COUNT
Jules Verne channeled 19th century technological progress into wondrous stories that fueled the world’s imagination. He took us to the center of the earth, to the bottom of the sea, to the moon and, in perhaps his most popular adventure, around the world in 80 days. Even in his lifetime, Verne profited handsomely from stage adaptations of this story.
The 2008 adaption by Laura Eason of Around the World in 80 days, now on stage at Lamb’s Players Theatre, struggles to maintain the purity of the novel; in her effort to make every train and steamship connection (the crux of how it’s even possible to traverse the globe in 80 days), many of the adventure scenes are so truncated that emotional connections between characters are sacrificed.
English gentleman Phileas Fogg (Lance Arthur Smith) has wagered his fortune that he can make the globular trip on time – a seemingly impulsive bet which is at odds with his meticulous, logical and ordered disposition. In Eason’s well-crafted opening, we see Fogg go through three – mostly wordless – repetitions of his daily routine: wake, stretch, dress, tea, read, go to the club, a game of whist, tea again, and bed. Just before the third repetition of retiring to bed, Fogg informs his valet (a delightfully rigid Jesse Abeel) that the tea is not at the proper temperature. The valet promptly tenders his resignation. Fogg accepts. What is missing from Mr. Smith’s performance is a sharper rendering of that cold detachment. Smith’s Fogg is too affable. While Fogg, the Verne character, is not mean-spirited, he does live cerebrally, unaware of the effect that his decisions have on others. He can be generous with his money, but not his heart. And it is his heart, more than his logical acumen, that is going to be tested.
An example of one such critical test receiving short shrift in this adaptation: A third of the way into the journey, Fogg and his valet Passepartout (played with engaging gruffness and acrobatic flexibility by Bryan Barbarin) are sidetracked by a suttee, where a young widowed Indian woman named Aouda is about to immolate herself on the pyre of her deceased husband, a rajah of Bundelcund. To Fogg, this is an atrocity, as the woman is obviously not voluntarily sacrificing herself, but is obligated to do so by the force of tradition. Fogg sacrifices two critical days in order to rescue her. This is a turning point for Fogg, who risks his mission to save an unknown against insurmountable odds. But Eason speeds us thorough this major segment by having Fogg announce he will save the woman, after which Passepartout quickly fights off two guards – and we’re back on the road, as if this was The Amazing Race rather than a humanizing journey.
Also lacking are character development and motivation. The well-educated woman, who is publicly unwilling to be sacrificed as custom dictates, is as much a bridge from ancient to modern cultures as is the steam engine is to modern high-speed travel. Fogg is drawn to her despite his cool demeanor. But we need time to experience it. Passepartout, in the original, puts himself on the pyre to save the woman; by exchanging Passepartout’s mundane sword fight act for the certain death of the pyre, Eason has weakened an experience that was essential to creating the valet’s unshakeable bond with Fogg.
It is acknowledged that Verne is, after all, generally light on psychology and rich on action. But it is through action that character is revealed. When a long story is compressed into a series of highlights, the effect can be like jumping from stone to stone just to get across the river. It’s equally important to stop and observe the life below the surface. Maybe even kneel down to take a sip.
Under Director Robert Smyth’s guidance, the Lamb’s Theatre ensemble is amazing. Kaja Amada Dunn gives Aouda extraordinary verve and quick-witted resilience; no wonder she can keep up with – or even better – Fogg, whether in matters of polite conversation or discussing the paternalism of the British Empire.
John Rosen, Caitie Grady, and Brian Rickel play a panoply of supporting roles: police, magistrates, sea captains, club members, British consuls and others; their work is crisp, well-defined and funny. Jesse Abeel returns to Lamb’s as the elegant and sophisticated Parsee guide, Naidu, who sees Fogg through the worst of his ordeals. Jon Lorenz, bumbling and bemused as Inspector Fix, has superb comic timing especially when Aoudo gives him her parting shot.
The Mike Mckeon set captures the essence of 19th century mechanical wizardry, incorporating sliding library stairs, shifting scrimmed bookcases, trap doors that produce elephants, a giant swinging snow sledge, and a sailing ship. Deborah Gilmore Smyth’s evocative sound design is rich in steam, the kind that underscores the emotional arc. Stage Manager Maria Mangiavellano is to be commended for orchestrating what must be a backstage flurry of ever-changing facial hair and costumes, magnificently designed by Jeanne Barnes Reith.
The Lamb’s organization is imbued with strength, vision, and talent. Perhaps, one day, they may create their own adaptation of any one of the great public domain classics rather than relying on existing adaptations that fail to give the classics their due.
photos: by JT MacMillan
Around the World in 80 Days
Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado
scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, call phone 619-437-6000 or visit http://www.lambsplayers.org