Review: CBT Goes Global in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

80DaysAs a final iconic gesture, the very last image the audience is left with in the Clarence Brown Theatre’s current production of Around the World in 80 Days is a spinning globe, the recognition that a journey is often more important than the destination. The idea—in director Kate Buckley’s own words—that “the journey is its own reward,” lies at the heart of this endlessly entertaining, but admittedly paper-thin, work of theatre. As Buckley admits in her notes, there are themes aimed at younger theatre-goers: “time is precious, be kind, be generous, and perseverance can lead to success and happiness.” While those are obviously important concepts, they take a distant second place to the primary intent of this CBT production of Around the World in 80 Days: a showcase of the art and craft of theatre itself. To that end, to that journey, Around the World in 80 Days succeeds marvelously.

Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the plot based on the Jules Verne novel. A reserved and somewhat lonely Englishman, Phileas Fogg, accepts a wager from his fellow club members that he can travel around the globe by currently available transportation—current as of 1872—in 80 days. He departs London with his newly hired French manservant, Passepartout, pursued in error by a Detective Fix, who believes he is the mysterious perpetrator of a recent robbery at the Bank of England. The trio travels to Egypt, then to India, enduring all manner of obstacles and experiences, and meeting a host of international characters along the way. Having rescued an Indian woman, Aouda, from human sacrifice in Calcutta, the foursome journey on to Japan, then across the Pacific to San Francisco. The journey across America, obstructed by a blustering army colonel and “indigenous Americans,” loses steam. But the travelers make it to London, believing they have failed to make it in time, not taking into account that in traveling east, they gained a day. Romance is resolved, wagers paid, suspicions forgiven, and everyone supposedly lives happily ever after. If only real journeys ended so well.

With 29 characters performed by only 9 actors, the production is a veritable showcase for the considerable talents of the CBT faculty and MFA actor candidates, even if those characters are mostly one-dimensional. All the actors are familiar faces for regular CBT theatre-goers over the last several years, if not the last several months. Jeff Dickamore, last seen in The Busybody, made a decidedly handsome, mathematical, and reserved, Phileas Fogg. As the prime motivator of plot points, Aaron Orlov’s Passepartout danced, hopped, and trod that necessary fine line between brilliant presentational comedy and expositional delivery. CBT faculty member, David Brian Alley as Detective Fix, displayed an uncanny ability to be both threateningly sinister and heartwarming in the same sentence.

The remainder of the cast was proof of that old saying “there are no small roles…” The six actors covered the plethora of characters—from railway conductors and train clerks to opium servers to elephant tenders to sea captains—that give the work its comedic interest and continuity. They illustrated the art and craft of taking thinly written characters and turning them into wildly successful comedic and dramatic ones that live and breathe. Emily Kicklighter took three roles, including a soft, beautifully empathetic take on Aouda. Damon Boggess covered five roles, including the exasperating army colonel. Charlotte Munson harumphed and contorted her way through a British judge, then chilled out as an opium server who had enjoyed way too much of the product. Lauren Pennline was sharp as the consul’s secretary in Suez, then brilliantly transformed herself into a young Parsi boy that tends the production’s “elephant.” Carlène Pochette was the “reluctant-to-sell” elephant owner and a ship’s captain. Jude Carl Vincent had five roles, including the reluctant Captain Speedy.

An equally essential character in this production was the set, designed by Nevena Prodanovic. With richly textured scenic details and visual metaphors of compass points, world maps, and projections of considerable abstract beauty, this visual character carries the geographic progress along, even when Mark Brown’s adaptation and dialog begins to flag. A major feature is the production’s “elephant,” a wonderfully abstract creation of fabric endowed with amazingly suggestive attributes. Costume designer Victor Bercher was called upon to deliver the seemingly endless array of clothing styles. Lighting designer Maranda DeBusk contributed a lot of visual depth to the scenic journey. Likewise, Joe Payne brought sonic depth, and a few subtle jokes, to sound effects and music segments.

In her program notes, director Buckley writes: “Professionalism and training, side-by-side, reinforce the aim of this CBT mission.” Clearly, professionalism and training came to work in this production of Around the World in 80 Days. Whether there is more to theatre as an artform is a topic for another day.

The Clarence Brown Theatre production of Around the World in 80 Days continues through May 7 with added performances. Tickets