Penobscot Theatre Company ends season with whirlwind production of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

Posted May 20, 2013, at 3:56 p.m.
Dominick Varney (left) and Bradley LaBree in a scene from &quotAround the World in 80 Days."
Magnus Stark
Dominick Varney (left) and Bradley LaBree in a scene from "Around the World in 80 Days."
(Left to right) Bradley LaBree, Dominick Varney, Arthur Morison and Robin Bloodworth in &quotAround the World in 80 Days."
Magnus Stark
(Left to right) Bradley LaBree, Dominick Varney, Arthur Morison and Robin Bloodworth in "Around the World in 80 Days."

Penobscot Theatre Company is ending its 39th season on a whirlwind lark of a production.

“Around the World in 80 Days,” directed by Kate Warner, is fun and visually delightful but marred by uneven pacing and a too-long first act. Sunday’s matinee moved forward with a great burst of energy only to suddenly stall as if its engine had run out of steam, then lurch into the next scene.

Actor-turned-playwright Mark Brown based the more than two-hour adventure on Jules Verne’s novel. It was first produced in 2001 at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. Since then, it has been performed in hundreds of theaters around the world, according to Brown’s website.

The story begins with English gentleman Phileas Fogg betting fellow members of his club that he and his faithful French servant, Passepartout, can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. On the line is £20,000, or, $2 million in 2013 American dollars. On their trail is Detective Fix of Scotland Yard, who believes Fogg is the gentleman bandit who has robbed a London bank and absconded with the cash.

With a wink and a nod to the audience, five actors portray 39 characters. Chairs are transformed into seats on railway cars, balconies become ships’ decks and a table turns into a pachyderm. Actors become quick change artists, donning turbans and fezes, moustaches and scarves, saris and proper Victorian traveling attire with great agility.

To accomplish this, the cast must and does work together as a well-oiled ensemble. Robin Bloodworth, an Atlanta-based actor, gives a robust performance as Fogg. He captures perfectly the ingenious gentleman who never met an obstacle that could not be overcome but fails in showing the audience the dashing romantic side of the adventurer.

Dominick Varney, as always, steals nearly every scene he’s in as Fogg’s pliant servant Passepartout. The local actor and director wrings every ounce of comedy, much of it physical, for each stop along his master’s route. His visit to the opium den is hysterical.

Brad LaBree almost keeps with him as the dogged Detective Fix and a rash of other characters. Arthur Morison also transforms himself readily into more than a dozen characters the travelers meet along the way. Jenny Hart as Aouda works hard to keep up with her companions and successfully keeps pace.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is a visual delight thanks to the work of set designer Erik Diaz, lighting designer Wayne Merritt and costume designer Rebecca Wright. It all works well except for the steep stairs, which make it difficult for actors to make a quick and safe descent from the balcony to the stage.

Despite the fog machine, the giant map of the world that shows the cities where these intrepid travelers change modes of transportation and the delightful array of headgear, the production lacks something. Other theater companies have had Foley artists onstage doing live sound effects. The snippets of music from adventure films, including John Williams’ iconic “Indiana Jones” theme, did not make up for the clomping of horses’ hooves, the whirling winds of a typhoon or the fun the audience would have had seeing those sounds created.

In spite of its shortcomings, “Around the World in 80 Days” is a frolick fit for frittering away a couple of hours as spring wans and summer approaches and a fine way for PTC to close out its 39th season.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is performed Wednesdays through Sundays, through June 2. Individual ticket prices range from $22 to $36. Group, senior and student discounts are available. Purchase tickets, subscriptions and gift certificates online at penobscottheatre.org, or through the box office at 942-3333. Penobscot Theatre will give one complimentary youth ticket for those ages 18 and under for every $36 ticket purchased either in person or by phone.

The BDN is a sponsor of the Penobscot Theatre Company.

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