Imagine you wanted to dramatize one of science fiction writer Jules Verne’s greatest novels, one which imagined a journey around the world circa 1872 in a then unimaginable eighty days with stops in Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York, and then back to London, an adventure that would include dozens of characters along the way, onboard train and ship and atop elephant, and involve a daring rescue, a visit to a Chinese opium den, an Apache attack, and one unexpected delay after another.
And let’s say you had millions upon millions of dollars to do all of the above. You could then assemble an all-star cast featuring over 40 international stars in cameo roles alongside 68,894 extras. You could shoot the movie quite literally “around the world” with 7,959 various animals: ostriches, skunks, elephants, bulls, monkeys, horses, burros, buffalo, sheep and even a sacred cow. You’d likely end up with 680,000 feet of film edited down to 25,734 feet and come up with a movie nominated for eight Oscars, winning five, including Best Picture.
Legendary Hollywood producer Mike Todd did just this in 1956 to Oscar and audience acclaim.
Or … you could hire five actors, give them a nearly bare stage to perform on, with only a handful of straight back chairs, a table, a cart on casters, and a trunk or two to help set the scene. You could have costume, lighting, and sound designers find clever ways to substitute audience imagination for realistic locations and effects. Perhaps most importantly, you could assign the project to a director of supreme inventiveness. With all these elements in place, you could then offer audiences an equally if not more entertaining final product at a considerably smaller budget.
Long Beach’s International City Theater does precisely this in their 2013 season opener, and if my guess is right, this ever so imaginative production is likely to prove a critical and audience favorite over the next four weekends.
ICT has hired Allison Bibicoff to direct Mark Brown’s stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic tale, and though best known as the Scenie-winning choreographer of The Who’s Tommy and iGhost among others, she now reveals herself a director of inspired ingenuity and flair.
Playwright Brown’s concept is as follows. Have one actor play leading man Phileas Fogg (he who wagered £20,000, or $2,500,000 in today’s currency!) that he could do the impossible in eighty days; have a second actor play Fogg’s French valet Passepartout; have the third actor relentlessly pursue Fogg around the world in the role of Inspector Fix (and give him another seven parts to play in his spare time); assign the role of love interest Indian Princess Aouda to the cast’s sole female member (and let her do some gender-bending in a trio of cameos); and as for the remaining sixteen characters, well, why hire sixteen actors when you can have one masterful performer play them all?
If this sounds more than a tad like Patrick Barlow’s international smash The 39 Steps, let it be noted that Brown’s play predates Barlow’s by four years and provides all of the later play’s delights, especially when you’ve got Bibicoff (assisted by Kyle Nudo) in the directorial driver’s seat and a team of topnotch actors and designers at her command.
Need a table? Just have one of your actors pull it out from the world map created by scenic designer Staci Walters to back up the action. Need a ship’s wheel? Set the table on its side and that’s what it will become. Need an elephant to transport your characters? Stack chairs atop and around the table, drape the highest chair with appropriate “upholstery,” let a pair of gray parasols simulate the animal’s bulk, and have sound designer extraordinaire Dave Mickey fill in the audio blanks. Need a ship? Just hang a lifebuoy with the ship’s name on it from a pair of chairs taking the place of the ship’s bow. Need to create a sail-driven sledge to take our intrepid travelers across the American plains when their train breaks down? Simply create a new configuration for those ubiquitous chairs, have a sail pulled skyward from out of the back of the driver’s costume, and let the audience imagine the rest.
Not surprisingly, costumes aid greatly in creating the illusion of dozens of characters onstage instead of a mere five actors, and ICT resident designer Kim DeShazo’s are a marvel, the design whiz having figured out ways for one costume to transform itself into another in a matter of seconds, and even creating a moment in which an actor emerges from under a tea cart his head poking through a hole in the tablecloth, only to turn said cloth into yet another of DeShazo’s confections, many of which could not be complete without one of hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi’s marvelous creations. Lighting designer Donna Ruzika works her own magic as well, as do resident property designers Patty and Gordon Briles, doing double or triple duty here with Christopher Briles’ assistance.
Last but most definitely not least come the five prodigiously talented actors assembled on the ICT stage, courtesy of casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, and casting assistant Richie Ferris.
Jud V. Williford does a splendid job of giving us Phileas Fogg in all his idiosyncratic, precisionist splendor, aided and abetted at every turn by physical comedy virtuoso Michael Uribes as the one-and-only (and très amusant) Passepartout. Then there’s the delightful (and ever so lovely and talented) Melinda Porto, who not only gets to be an Indian princess and, briefly, a lady of questionable virtue, but also a trio of male characters as well, with assorted accents, wigs, and facial hair.
The always wonderful Brian Stanton has great fun tailing Fogg and company around the world as the determined Detective Fix, a role which would be assignment enough for most plays, but playwright Brown gives Stanton’s “Actor 2” quite a workout as (among others) an Indian elephant owner, a young Parsi, and a bewigged British law clerk named OysterPuff.
Finally, given the lion’s share of cameos is “Actor 1,” the awesomely versatile Mark Gagliardi, playing (in order of appearance) Reform Club member Gauthier Ralph, a British Consul, a Director of Police, an Indian priest, retired Brigadier General Sir Francis, Calcutta Judge Obadiah, a Chinese broker, a ship clerk, ship pilot Bunsby, American Colonel Proctor, a train engineer, sledge driver Mudge, a clerk, captain Speedy of the Henrietta, its ship engineer, and a train clerk. Whether upper class Englishman or Fu Manchu-bearded Chinese, or a parcel of Americans each gruffer and grizzlier than the next, Gagliardi simply couldn’t be more scene-stealingly fabulous.
ICT Artistic Director caryn desai is producer. Danny Cole and Stacey Cole are magic consultants for some quick-fingered sleights of hand. Pat Loeb is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor assistant stage manager.
Around The World In 80 Days is but the first of five terrific plays in International City Theatre’s 2013 season, to be followed by Terrence McNally’s masterful Master Class, Sarah Ruhl’s charming Dead Man’s Cell Phone, John Logan’s compelling Red, and French farce-master Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress For Dinner.
For the moment, Mark Brown’s crackerjack adventure comedy under Allison Bibicoff’s inspired baton opens ICT Season 28 with quite enough theatrical fireworks to light up the Long Beach sky for weeks to come.
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
January 25, 2013
Photos: Suzanne Mapes