Photo by Michael Lamont
By fluke, a local stage adaptation (by Mark Brown) of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Around the World in 80 Days (playing at Burbank’s Colony Theater), opened the same week that Disney released its new movie remake of the same work, starring executive producer Jackie Chan.
It would be ingenuous and sacrilegious in a movie town to suggest that the theater is better suited than film to handle adventure-romance stories of Verne’s ilk (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, etc.). And yet, while Disney’s kung phooey go-round is as hyper and formulaic as producer Mike Todd’s 1956 movie version is stodgy, Stefan Novinski’s elemental staging of Brown’s theater adaptation simply sparkles. The reasons for what goes right on the stage and what goes wrong on the screens are many and varied, largely having to do with the exigencies of taste and marketing, yet they all funnel back to the source material and the appreciation of it, or lack thereof.
In the late 1870s, Frenchman Verne was living in, and writing about, the birth of the machine age with both a childlike excitement and some apprehension. Around the World in 80 Days is his French swipe at the machinelike fastidiousness of the people across the Channel, and the numbing consequences of living by rote — sort of like Ionesco ribbing the Brits. There’s no irony in the name of Verne’s protagonist, Phileas Fogg, an honorable, dead-behind-the-eyes London “gentleman” with no family, no friends and a profession that nobody can fathom. After rising at 8 a.m., he takes his morning tea precisely 20 minutes later at precisely 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and arrives at his gentlemen’s club, where he lunches, sups and sits in the same chair every day to read the newspaper, at exactly 11:30 a.m. Because, one morning, his tea is 2 degrees cooler than required, he fires his valet. The replacement, a Frenchman named Jean Passepartout, is as flexible in manner and physique as Fogg is rigid.
One of the few things that impresses Fogg is the miracle of modern invention and the ways it has made life more efficient and the world smaller. While at his club, Fogg asserts the mathematical and practical possibility of girdling the Earth in 80 days, staking his future on a £20,000 wager that he can use contemporary technologies to meet that goal himself. With his clinically empirical and objective demeanor in the midst of such impediments as a typhoon on the high seas and an Apache Indian attack upon his San Francisco–to–New York train, Fogg is a literary antecedent to James Bond, living in a novel with two chase scenes.
On the very day Fogg departs London’s Charing Cross Station to start his voyage, the Bank of England is robbed. Fogg’s hasty departure from Britain and his known possession of a large wad of bank notes render him a suspect in the crime. This explains Scotland Yard’s pursuit of him across time zones and the Crown’s territories via a haughty and slightly incompetent detective jocularly named Fix. Unlike Bond, Fogg doesn’t kill anybody or anything — least of all, time. In fact, Fogg’s relentless pursuit of the clock describes the novel’s primary chase. This places him in stark contrast to his relaxation-seeking valet, who misses the Hong Kong–to–Yokohama steamer because he’s inebriated in an opium den. The sun may never set on the British Empire, but the French, you see, know how to live.
In the 1956 movie, director Michael Anderson cast David Niven as Fogg and Mexican star Cantinflas as Fogg’s valet, which summarily jettisons Verne’s Anglo-French jokes, though Anderson adds a sprinkling of his own wry wit. For instance, when the pair arrive in China and speak to the natives in terrible Sino accents, the Chinese answer in perfect English. While sailing over France in a hot-air balloon, Cantinflas plucks snow from the top of an Alp to chill Niven’s martini — that sort of thing.
The pair leave England not via train from Charing Cross to Dover (for a steamer to Calais) but in that balloon, which has become a marketing emblem for the story yet is not in the novel at all. The big bubble overshoots its French destination and careens into Spain for a bullfight scene (also added). So, while Verne’s story tests Fogg’s presumption that the world has grown smaller, Todd’s movie version actually makes Fogg’s world bigger by adding scenes. This is among the reasons (including languid pacing and a highbrow drawing-room tone) that the movie seems to drag on for about 80 days.
In director Frank Coraci’s Disney flick, the protagonist shifts from Fogg to Passepartout, played by Chan as Chinaman Lau Xing posing as a French valet. After Xing swipes a sacred jade Buddha from the British Museum in order to return it to his Chinese village, he cozies up to the globetrotting Fogg for reasons of convenience rather than loyalty or service. The pursuit of Xing by an evil Chinese warlord, plus the pursuit of Fogg by detective Fix (here renamed Fox), leads to more chase scenes and martial-arts sequences than you’ll see in 80 days of hanging around a tae kwon do convention.
Meanwhile, Fogg (Steve Coogan) is now transformed from an enigmatic robot of a man to a wacky dreamer/inventor of flying devices. Verne’s Fogg travels the globe, risking life and limb on a bet, simply and smugly to prove a trifling point, whereas Disney inflates his wager into some kind of ideological rift between the traditionalists of the Royal Academy of Science (who believe that nothing more can be invented) and Fogg, who is now an emblem of creativity and progress. This was probably done to make Fogg more interesting or heroic or romantic or something. It goes without saying that Disney’s meddling crashes directly into Verne’s core idea, which is that Fogg, though overstuffed with honor, is almost bereft of imagination and humanity. While Passepartout yearns to linger in foreign cultures, Fogg simply slogs through the Empire with one eye on his travelogue and the other on his watch because, as we all know, time is money. Some light finally penetrates Fogg when a Calcutta woman, whom he saved from being burned alive by religious fanatics (and only because he had a couple of days to spare), is able to soften his leather heart.
The contrasts between Fogg and Passepartout, along with the other essences of Verne’s story, are largely eviscerated in Disney’s character twists, the added plots, the swordfights, the Keystone Kops tone, the wooden mugging performances, the puerile jokes, not to mention governor-to-be Arnold parodying himself as a womanizing Turkish prince. Worse than being pointless, it’s not even funny. And it cost $117 million.
At the Colony Theater, Brown’s adaptation has five actors telling the story while shape-shifting and flinging costumes and wigs backstage on the turn of a ha’penny.
Donna Marquet’s set features a hardwood floor, accented by a potted plant on either side, a proscenium frame of maroon curtains, and a quartet of rotating panels, each containing on one side a sliver from a map of the world. This means that all the pictures from around Verne’s globe are conjured from dialogue and rudimentary theatrical devices.
An elephant outside Bombay consists of a table (pulled by a rope) with chairs parked on top. With the actors in place, jerking from side to side in unison (with facial expressions ranging from bemusement to panic) in tandem with sound designer Drew Dalzell’s recorded, thumping footsteps and squeals, the pachyderm whimsically materializes.
An entrepreneur named Mudge (Morgan Rusler, in one of a series of brilliant cameos) offers transport to Fogg and company across a frigid American plain on a wind sled. The group huddles, and with the eerie hum from a couple of actors twirling vacuum-cleaner hoses, and a narrator describing the icy scenery floating by, the goofy, magical effect is a fulfillment of theater’s low-tech capacity to transport an audience on a whim and a word.
Tony Maggio, the only actor not playing multiple roles, portrays a perfectly Niven-like Fogg, a straight man to Jeff Marlow’s elastic Passepartout, who whips a French accent and a few dollops of indignance into a comedic froth. Also charming are Larry Cedar’s goggle-eyed detective and Kwana Martinez’s narrator and ingénue, Aouda.
Director Novinski moves his actors with choreographed precision and sets a fanciful tone that dips into burlesque but doesn’t dwell there. And that’s the difference between this production and the Disney movie. Novinski’s staging isn’t so much reverential as respectful of Verne, and of Brown’s faithful adaptation. It recognizes and punctuates the contemporary resonance of an old book without mutating or muting it. See this production and you’ll meet Jules Verne. It’s a delight, and it closes on Sunday.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS | Adapted for the stage by MARK BROWN from the novel by JULES VERNE | At the COLONY THEATER, 555 N. Third St., Burbank | (818) 558-7000 or www.colonytheatre.org | Through July 11