By Kelli Frost-Allred
A roulette wheel, a hummingbird, a shooting star, and Around the World in 80 Days all share one common thread: Each inspires pleasure and awe, and each moves so quickly the human eye can scarcely track it. Entertainment in the twenty-first century moves at a fast pace, and this play is no exception. If you plan to visit the Utah Shakespeare Festival with children this summer, consider this stage adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in 80 Days. All family members, adults and older children alike, will surely find the fun in this globetrotting adventure. (Remember, however, younger children, under age five, are not allowed in Festival theatres.)
“Misadventure” better describes the trek of Philias Fogg, an English aristocrat bent on winning a gentlemen’s bet that he can set a new and unthinkable record by circumnavigating the globe in just eighty days. The wager is sizable, the outcome is doubtful, and the risks are great. What, then, would possess Philias Fogg to enter into such a wager? In short, he’s an arrogant know-it-all who insists that with the completion of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, “one would only need eighty days.”
A time machine might be needed to transport the audience back to 1873, the year in which Verne penned the story, when Victorian England was more a land of do’s and don’ts than of imagination and adventure. The visionary Verne created a vehicle (excuse the pun!) that showcased nineteenth century modes of transportation that revolutionized travel: train and steamboat.
Around the World in 80 Days will be presented in Utah’s most prestigious and sophisticated indoor theatre, the Randall L. Jones Theatre. But don’t come to this play expecting extravagance and flourish, because playwright Bengt Ahlfors designed the play as a minimalist piece. Few elaborate elements will adorn the plot; few set pieces, scant costume changes, and suggestive props provide the side dishes to the play’s main course.
The play moves Philias Fogg and his manservant from one location to the next, introducing new characters at each stop around the globe. These supporting characters are the seasonings that make this theatre piece a satisfying meal. As characters enter the play, they turn to the audience and introduce themselves, giving colorful descriptions of their own unique circumstances.
When Fogg finds himself in India without transportation, he offers to buy an elephant. The elephant’s owner asks if Fogg needs “a riding elephant or a fighting elephant?” When Fogg says he needs a riding elephant, the owner responds: “So you want to buy a fighting elephant for riding? It is very important for you to reach Allahabad? And there are no other means of conveyance? Then the price is very high.” Fogg’s lesson in supply and demand continues, to the audience’s amusement.
Philias rescues a woman from becoming a human sacrifice in the jungle, sealing his fate as her savior. And while Mrs. Aouda falls in love with Fogg, the audience follows suit, and the stuffy protagonist becomes, in fact, the hero of the play.
The secondary plot involves a London detective (Fix) who is on the trail of Fogg. Detective Fix suspects the gentleman of having stolen a large sum of money that turned up missing on the very day Fogg embarked upon his odyssey. Half the fun of the play is seeing Fix fall victim to his own mean-spirited devices.
The music of Chopin—a contemporary of Jules Verne—weaves throughout the story and serves to connect what might otherwise be disjointed scenes. “Fantasie impromptu,” a polonaise, a nocturne, a rhapsody, and more become the aural setting for each new horizon. The music lends depth, humor, emotion, and vibrancy to the play.
The British once claimed that the “sun never sets on the Union Jack.” Audiences are invited to re-visit the world-according-to-Queen-Victoria. Representing an era characterized by repression, stodginess, and rules, the director and cast of Around the World in 80 Days invite you to join in the fun of uncovering the humor, warmth, creativity, daring, and adventure of the same era.
(From Midsummer Magazine, the Official Magazine of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2001)