Around the World in 80 Days: If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Woonsocket

Cast of "Around the World in 80 Days" at RI Stage Ensemble: (fg) Gordon R. Dell (director), (bg, l-r) Kevin Broccoli (many roles), Candice Sampson (Detective Fix), Brad Kirton (Phileas Fogg), Ashley Moore (Princess Auoda), Chris Pelletier (Jean Passepartout) (Photo: Michael Bilow)

Cast of “Around the World in 80 Days” at RI Stage Ensemble: (fg) Gordon R. Dell (director), (bg, l-r) Kevin Broccoli (many roles), Candice Sampson (Detective Fix), Brad Kirton (Phileas Fogg), Ashley Moore (Princess Auoda), Chris Pelletier (Jean Passepartout) (Photo: Michael Bilow)

Around the World in 80 Days is a stage version of what is very likely the most popular novel by Jules Verne, the prolific 19th century grandfather of technological fiction, by which I mean fiction dependent upon and heavily influenced by then-current or just slightly futuristic technology as distinguished from science-fiction that is more speculative.

The novel came at a time when a confluence of real-world innovations made the globe seem unbelievably smaller: The commencement of operations by the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States in 1869 that reduced travel time between New York City and San Francisco from six months to one week, the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea in 1869 that reduced by 7,000 miles the distance between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the connection – more or less – of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway with the East Indian Railway that made it possible to travel from Bombay (Mumbai) to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1870. Published in serial form in 1872, the episodic adventure tale and its huge popular success cemented Verne’s undeserved reputation as a commercial genre writer rather than a serious literary author. As early as 1874, 80 Days was on the stage in French where it ran for 66 years. A 1956 film version overstuffed with pointless star cameos and departing from the novel in ways that made it careen off a cliff is probably how most Americans know what remained of the story.

Verne is saddled with a terrible reputation in English due to awful translations that continue to be reprinted solely because they are in the public domain. When I first tried reading Verne in the 1960s, I couldn’t get through the densely florid Victorian prose. Only later in high school when I learned to read Verne in the original French did I realize how skilled a writer he was. Freed from translators who were paid by the word and therefore often expanded the original work by half-again in length, Verne is a fun, fast-paced, exciting writer. (If you want to read the original novel in English, I recommend the William Butcher translation from Oxford University Press.) Verne openly admitted pinching parts of the story from various sources, notably the key plot device from an 1841 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, Verne’s literary hero about whom he wrote an entire non-fiction book in 1864. American William Perry Fogg published widely read accounts of his actual circumnavigation of the earth, although it took him from 1869 to 1871, and is almost certainly the inspiration for Verne’s character’s name.

Phileas Fogg (Brad Kirton) is a wealthy but private man of the upper class who seems like a machine, doing everything in exactly the same way every day, with no wife, no children, no business connections and no activity of any kind other than walking between his home and his club. He is rumored not to have left London in many years. As the play opens, Fogg has just fired his valet for bringing him shaving water at 84°F instead of 86°F and hires a new valet, Jean Passepartout (Chris Pelletier), who seeks a quiet respite from his exciting but erratic past as a traveling singer, a circus horse-rider, a trapeze aerialist, a tightrope walker, a gymnastics instructor and a firefighter. Fogg bets the enormous sum of £20,000 (equivalent to about $2.5 million today taking into account inflation and exchange rates) that he can travel all the way around the world in 80 days, the machine-like man placing his faith in the machines that will make this possible.

Fogg and Passepartout set off, trailed by Scotland Yard’s Detective Fix (Candice Sampson) who is very suspicious of Fogg’s mysterious source of wealth and believes he is trying to abscond from a larceny. In India, the travelers rescue a Brahmin widow, Princess Auoda (Ashley Moore), who is about to be put to death by burning on her husband’s funeral pyre (in the very real practice of “suttee” that a horrified Queen Victoria tried to ban in 1861) and escape with her out of the country to protect her. The travelers encounter numerous other characters, including a British military officer, an American military officer, a steamboat captain and a ski sled driver (all played by Kevin Broccoli).

The trains and steamers that seemed technological marvels to Verne and his readers a century and half ago are, of course, no longer so to us in the space age where it is literally possible to orbit the earth in about 90 minutes. Director Gordon R. Dell wisely de-emphasizes the 19th Century gee-whiz technology of the original story, reducing the set to a sign-board, a painted map, a few chairs and an imposingly large potted plant that he joked was “the sixth actor.” The cast skillfully exploit the quick pace of playwright Mark Brown’s rather faithful script as they are attacked by Brahmin priests, ride an elephant, get caught in a typhoon and are attacked by Native American Indian warriors. Among a uniformly excellent cast, special praise is due to Kirton for his consistently staid and unflappable character in the face of repeated obstacles that threaten to become calamities and to Simpson for her consistently unstaid and flappable character in the face of mounting frustrations, but by far the outstanding actor with the meatiest role is Broccoli who is called upon for about a dozen different characters and accents.

Around the World in 80 Days from RI Stage Ensemble is a lot of fun, a well-played and rapidly paced adventure farce, and a solid adaptation of a famous novel that has too often been badly treated in other media.

Around the World in 80 Days, directed by Gordon R. Dell. RI Stage Ensemble, performances in the auditorium of the Morning Star Masonic Lodge, 142 Clinton St, Woonsocket. Fri (2/24), Sat (2/25) 7pm, Sun (2/26) 2pm, about 1h30m including one intermission. Refreshments available. Parking allowed on-street and in nearby co-operating local lots. E-mail: contactus@ristage.org Web: ristage.org/around-the-world-in-80-days.html Facebook: facebook.com/events/1404996782889858

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