“Around the World…” at Chamber Theatre

By - Aug 17th, 2009 02:45 pm
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production still from the ATWin80D, (photo by Mark Frohna courtesy the MCT)

Show: Around the World in 80 Days
Written for the stage by Mark Brown,
from the novel by Jules Verne
Directed by: Patrick Holland
Produced by: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Runs: 140 min. with one intermission
Aug. 13-30, 2009

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre launches a unique 35th season of plays with the Milwaukee premiere of Around the World in 80 Days. This dramatic comedy is, of course an adaptation of Jules Verne’s famous story, which later became an Oscar-winning best picture in 1956 (with many other film and television adaptations to follow).  It’s a daunting task, but one that seems to have inspired MCT’s Producing Artistic Director C. Michael Wright and the company.

It also inspired me. Well, the film did anyway. When I saw it as a child it piqued my world curiosity and eventually culminated in my own around-the-world trip that lasted 20 years. Even with my own particular expectations, seeing Around the World in 80 Days on the Cabot Theatre stage came with a wonderful sense of deja-vu.

The story‘s premise:  It’s 1872, and in a moment of bravado a young English gentleman named Phileas Fogg wagers 20,000 pounds that he can circle the globe in 80 days. He sets off with his new French manservant Passepartout on the very next train. Along the way they are pursued by the dogged detective Fix, rescue the Indian princess Aouda and escape many close calls in one grand misadventure after another. Playwright Mark Brown took Verne’s lead to make a contemporary statement: technology trumps convention and those mired in myths and obsolescence will lose their bets. The message rings with an even more certain truth today.

The production’s concept is based on the interplay between tradition and modernity, which results in the Steampunk framework. Kristina Van Slyke has designed costumes that reflect a mix of Victorian and contemporary…and practicality for the frequent onstage costume changes. Around the World in 80 Days is actually the perfect Steampunk vehicle. Timepieces on fobs represent the steamers and trains which transport the cast around the globe. Clever contraptions and mechanical devices operated by three goggled assistants make the production feel like a fantastic Wallace-and-Grommit-meet-Jules-Verne adventure.  Scenic designer Keith Pitts has created an upward-soaring 19th century train station interior, complete with industrial-inspired brass pipe columns and factory-style ironwork stairs and platforms.

Around the World in 80 Days is a huge work for a chamber theatre, yet the minimal settings and cast of five manage the feat with sheer talent and joy. Director Patrick Holland returns to the Chamber Theatre stage after successful productions of Crime and Punishment and Take Me Out. This time around, the subject matter is a bit lighter. He choreographs his cast up and down staircases, through moving train carriages, and even on an elephant ride to Calcutta via inventive staging. But it’s the cast that brings impressive credentials to the production.

Matt Daniels is Philieas Fogg, playing him as the ultimate practical Victorian gentleman. Daniels’ Fogg is truly staid and unflappable, his portrayal aided by his background as a Shakespearean actor with numerous stage and film credits under his belt. He has a flair, youth and demeanor utilized here which deftly conveys a generation fascinated by exploiting technology. Marti Gobel is strong as Aouda, the Indian princess. Chris Klopatek is Passepartout, and as his stage name implies, he is the key to it all. His antics add further comedic dimension, and he’s a natural in a role demanding cleverness, charm and a bit of gullibility. Sadly, he’ll be leaving Milwaukee after this show to study in California.

Norman Moses performs Sir Francis and several other roles; his characters sometimes come up with baffling accents as varied as the play’s locales.  Finally, Robert Spencer is stellar as Fix, hysterical as the driven detective in pursuit of his man, and as a wild array of characters too many to name… including the elephant driver and the gentleman Andrew Stuart. He is really a driving force in the overall success of the performance.

In all, the cast of five plays 39 roles. Their mutual affinity is palpable – they’re having a good time and it shows. It’s fast and funny, sometimes with serious silliness and always with pure energy.

In a conversation with C. Michael Wright, we talked about this cast of Milwaukee theater veterans and about Daniels, who makes his first appearance at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

“Each member of the cast is allowed to play to their fullest. Particularly the juxtaposition of Spencer’s seniority in the craft and Daniels’ youth create a powerful dynamic. It’s a fun mix,” Wright said.

And what is Steampunk, you ask? For those unfamiliar, it is an aesthetic, a mind-set and a fashion statement combined. It is a scientific romanticism that embraces modern technology with a Victorian sensitivity and style. A computer may be  housed in polished brass or minute gears as jewelry or robots, corsets, vests and spats. Immerse yourself in the concept at a special Steampunk Night on Thursday, August 20. Patrons in appropriate Steampunk attire may purchase half-price tickets in person at the box office; there will be pre-show activities and post-show steampunk band Eli August from Madison. ThirdCoast Digest plans to be there, with all the pictures fit to print on Friday.

Visit the Chamber Theatre’s website for tickets and other details, or call the box office at 414.291.7800.

And of course, you can always find stage details and ticketing information on the performing arts in Milwaukee by visitingFootlights

0 thoughts on “Review: “Around the World…” at Chamber Theatre”

  1. Anonymous says:

    […] production. The story lends itself very well for steampunk and has been successfully in the past. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre was very successful a few years ago by going […]

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