The first time I saw a stage adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days” it seemed to go on for 80 days. Non-stop adventure after adventure grew tedious in a lackluster telling. So for me, the production that opened Friday night at Hedgerow Theatre Company is a revelation: constantly amusing, moving like a typhoon (it includes a typhoon), and beautifully acted to boot.
Playwright Mark Brown adapted this version from Jules Verne’s novel in 2001, and like some other stage adaptations of well-known books or films, the show is both a spoof and a celebration of the original. Its success depends greatly on the inventiveness of a five-member cast and the director, in this case the all-around theater artist Damon Bonetti. In his staging, people pop from windows, doors and balconies. They use props, trunks and movable boxes and their own bodies to conjure everything from the typhoon I mentioned to a quick ride on an elephant.
Hedgerow’s producing artistic director Jared Reed plays Phileas Fogg, the aloof British loner who bases his life on the precision of mathematics and makes a big bet with fellow members of his gentleman’s club that he can get around the world in, well you know.
Fogg bases the bet on the rail and steamer technology of the times (it’s 1872) – but never on the hot-air balloon that was an invention of the 1956 movie, so effective that many people believe it was a part of the original Jules Verne plot. Nor is a balloon involved in this stage adaptation, which sticks close to the original story. (Even so, a full page of hype in Hedgerow’s playbill has us expecting it: “Hop aboard Phileas Fogg’s hot-air balloon,” it begins, “as Hedgerow Theatre Company’s small troupe of actors take on a global collection of carnival characters…”)
Reed is wonderfully intense as Fogg, slowly revealing himself to be the big-hearted man he’s hiding inside. The other four actors play multiple roles – in the case of Hedgerow veteran Zoran Kovcic, an enormous number of them – and they bring it all off with such finely tuned grace and style, plus precise timing, you wonder how it is they’re able to look like they’re having fun in the process.
Kovcic makes each of his characters unique, a feat when you witness it. Hanna Gaffney’s main character is Aouda, saved during Fogg’s trip from being executed on a funeral pyre. Mark Swift is wonderfully smarmy in his main role, a detective who shadows Fogg in order to pin a grand theft back home on him. And Sarah Knittel, who mainly plays Fogg’s French servant Passepartout, steals much of the show with her googly accent and rubbery expressions, made for just such a comedy.
It’s precisely the sort of thing you want to witness on a lazy summer night unless you’re lucky to catch the Phillies live at the ballpark in a win. (Hedgerow appears to be the better bet.) The production has an effectively bare-bones set (here, by Shaun Yates), and a running joke delivered by sound designer Aaron J. Oster. Its perfect period costumes are by Janus Stefanowicz and James Lewis’ lighting stirs up that typhoon. Super important: props by Susan Wefel and Juliet Grey that help spur the laughs.
A farce each summer has been a Hedgerow tradition. I never considered “Around the World in 80 Days” a farce. I’m now having trouble seeing it any other way.
“Around the World in 80 Days” runs through August 13 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, just outside Media. 610-565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.