It took legendary Hollywood producer Mike Todd around $50,000,000 in today’s currency to bring science fiction writer Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days to the Todd-AO 70mm big screen back in 1958.
Actors Co-op does the same in 2015 with maybe about one-half-percent the budget, and I defy anyone to find the Co-op’s supremely imaginative, endlessly inventive small-stage revival any less entertaining than its Hollywood blockbuster predecessor.
As any Verne fan can tell you, Around The World In Eighty Days imagines a round-the-globe journey circa 1872 with stops in Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, and New York on the way back to London, an adventure onboard train and ship and atop elephant, one featuring a daring rescue, a visit to a Chinese opium den, an Apache attack, one unexpected delay after another, and all of this taking place in a then unimaginable eleven-and-a-half weeks.
To accomplish this feat back in ‘58, Mike Todd assembled an all-star cast (over 40 international celebrities in lead and cameo roles alongside 68,894 extras and 7,959 animals including ostriches, skunks, elephants, bulls, monkeys, horses, burros, buffalo, sheep, and even a sacred cow) and shot his movie quite literally “around the world,” resulting in a three-hour-long blockbuster that won five Oscars, including Best Picture.
Actors Co-op takes a simpler, shorter route with Mark Brown’s stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic tale, assigning a grand total of thirty-nine roles to a mere five actors, a tiptop Co-op production design team finding countless clever ways to substitute audience imagination for realistic locations and effects.
Playwright Brown’s concept is as follows. Have one actor (Philip Kreyche at the Co-op) play leading man Phileas Fogg (he who wagered £20,000, or $2,500,000 in today’s currency) that he could do the supposedly impossible in eighty days. Have a second actor (Andrew Carter) play Fogg’s French valet Passepartout. Get a third actor (Bruce Ladd) to relentlessly pursue Fogg around the world in the role of Inspector Fix (and give him another seven male and female parts to play in his spare time). Assign the role of love interest Indian Princess Aouda to the cast’s sole female member (Eva Abramian, who does her own gender-bending early on). And as for the remaining sixteen characters, well, why hire sixteen actors when you can have one masterful performer (Kevin Coubal) 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 supplies all of the later play’s delights, especially when you’ve got Rhonda Kohl providing masterfully imaginative direction and a team of topnotch actors and designers at her command.
Scenic designer David Goldstein’s ingenious revolving set backs the action with a gorgeously painted world map (thanks to scenic artist Orlando de la Paz), then frames it with a pair of panneled walls to the left and right of the proscenium, each one jam-packed with clocks and gears and framed accoutrements including a sailing ship, an elephant, pistols, and suitcases that open Laugh In-style to reveal surprises behind them.
Add to the above steamer trunks that transform themselves into (among other things) various railway cars and an elephant, hanging ropes used to simulate a storm at sea, sheets that help turn those trunks into an ocean-sailing vessel large and a land-sailing vehicle small, and you’ll see yet another instance of the kind of Grade-A scenic designs that add a professional veneer to countless 99-seat productions around town.
Nicholas Acciani’s props are equally imaginative, including wall-hanging knickknacks that can be used as props when needed, along with special treats like whist hands that double as Chinese-style fans and a carpet that transforms itself as if by magic into a carpetbag.
Not surprisingly, costumes aid greatly in creating the illusion of dozens of characters onstage, and Wendell C. Carmichael’s could hardly be more brilliantly conceived and executed. Costume after costume turns into yet another in a matter of seconds, character switches aided by Krys Fehervari’s hair designs.
Lighting designer Matthew Taylor works his own magic as well, as does sound designer David B. Marling and projection designer Acciani, resulting in the kind of all-around fabulousness that has become an Actors Co-op mainstage production design hallmark.
Jill Massie’s dialect coaching once again aids actors in creating accent after accent. Natalie Lape is assistant scenic designer. Gavin Black is stage manager. Isaac Wade understudies Ladd.
Under Kohl’s direction, a sensational cast deliver one performance gem after another, beginning with Kreyche’s deliciously idiosyncratic take on Phileas Fogg. The Co-op guest artist may not be given the opportunities to steal scenes that Brown’s script affords his castmates, but without his anchoring work, there would be no scenes for his costars’ more colorful characters to steal.
Following understudy gigs at the Falcon and The Theatre @ Boston Court, Carter now gets to strut his comedic stuff each and every evening and matinee as the one-and-only, hilariously accented Passepartout, and a stellar Co-op guest artist debut it is, with added snaps for his cameo turn as veddy British, veddy stuffy Reform Club member John Sullivan.
Actors Co-op members Abramian and Ladd do memorable work as well, she as a supremely lovely Aouda and (among several cameos) a cute-as-a-button Newsies-ready male ragamuffin, he (despite some opening night line imprecision) as the relentless Fix and one outrageously funny, multi-national character after another (an Indian elephant owner, a young Parsi, and a bewigged British law clerk), with an extra round of applause for the gray-haired matron who proves Around The World In Eight Day’s deus ex machina.
Scene-stealingest of all is Coubal as 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, the dashingly handsome Co-op guest artist proves himself a comedian (and chameleon) extraordinaire.
There would of course be no Around The World In 80 Days (nor Actors Co-op Theatre Company for that matter) without the Los Angeles 99-seat plan, currently extinction-bound if Actors Equity has its misguided way. (Note to AEA: Producer Thomas Chavira is a company member raking in not a single cent of profit from this actors-cooperative production.) If ever there were a moment for a theatrical miracle to keep Actors Co-op alive and thriving as it’s been for the past two-plus decades at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, that moment is now.
In the meantime, one thing is certain. Though airplanes may not have existed back in 1872 to speed Phileas Fogg on his globe-rounding journey, Around The World In 80 Days closes Actors Co-op’s 23rd season on a sky-high note indeed.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
May 8, 2015
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly