When an audience bursts into spontaneous applause during the course of a play's action, it's an indication that the excitement has reached a level where it must be expressed. This most often happens in musicals, song and dance being the most emotional of the arts, but what set playgoers to 'witnessing' at the opening performance of Around The World In Eighty Days was a thrilling and intricate spectacle involving a Julie Taymor-style elephant, a patrician damsel delivered from a death sentence, and a single unarmed bantamweight combatant evading two scimitar-wielding villains before swinging aboard on a rope to complete the rescuers' escape—all executed at an exhilarating pace transforming a roomful of jaded theater patrons into children at an old-fashioned Saturday matinee.
Other Victorian science-fiction authors may have harbored suspicions of technology, but Jules Verne embraced it. His story of an English gentleman who wagers that he can circumvent the globe in an incredible 1,920 hours offers opportunities for showcasing the proliferation of rail and steamship transit—along with such exotic transport as prairie snow-sledges and the aforementioned pachyderm—in addition to providing a forum for discussion of values beyond tea, whist and imperialist chauvinism. By the time Phileas Fogg returns to claim his winnings, he is not the same man as he was on his departure.
But don't come expecting a philosophical dissertation on the benefits of tourism. When your plot is premised on a great-chase stunt—did I mention the Scotland Yard inspector who mistakes Fogg for a bank robber on the lam?—speed is what makes or breaks the result. Laura Eason's adaptation and direction keeps the phlegmatic Fogg and his immediate entourage hurtling forward at breathless momentum, substituting vigorous sea chanteys and a cappella sleigh-ride lullabies for Lookingglass' trademark aerialist adagios. Even the locale changes are executed with the swiftness of conjuring tricks, thanks to Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's origami scenic design ( which considerately includes a route map that keeps us oriented to the progress of the global voyage ) . Additional dazzle is supplied by an ensemble of protean players who portray an international array of supporting characters both helpful and hindersome to our protagonists in the literal expansion of their horizons.
Once is not enough to take in all the dimensions of what's certain to be one of the season's biggest hits. Keep this in mind when reserving your tickets.
Playwright: adapted by Laura Eason from the novel by Jules Verne. At: Lookingglass Theatre Company at the Water Tower Works, 821 N. Michigan. Phone: 312-337-0665; $25-$55. Runs through: June 1 Read more story below....