I have never read the Jules Verne novel upon which this play is based. Nor have I seen the extravagant 1956 movie version starring David Niven. So, other than a general idea gleaned from cultural awareness, I had no idea what to expect. Taproot Theatre is a tiny venue. How, I wondered, were they going to get a hot air balloon in there? We have all have imprinted in our collective subconscious the image of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout lifting upward in such a buoyed basket. Ah, film is a powerful medium, even when you're talking simply about poster art. No one travels by hot air balloon in the book -- and so, much to the set designer's relief I am sure, no one travels such in Taproot's play.
But still, from the moment the reticent, painfully reserved, and unnervingly mysterious English gentleman, Phileas Fogg, makes his bet against the other members of the Reform Club that he can travel -- in 1872, mind you -- well, around the world in eighty days, the play is non-stop action on train, steamer, elephant, and even a sailboat/sledge hybrid that got presumably great mileage in the prairie winters. You can imagine that that would leave a set designer with even a multi-million dollar budget and the Ratchada Grand in Bangkok to work with scratching his head in dismay.
And this is why Mark Lund is a genius. Faced with the travails of designing for an heart-poundingly epic and exotic adventure, he created a set that is a marvel of simplicity. Let's see, there was a versatile trunk, a couple of crates, a stool or two, and a giant map of the world as a backdrop (which concealed several surprise doors and windows). That's it. You want a train? Watch the actors rhythmically jiggle in unison to imitate the rolling motion over the tracks. Want a ship caught in a typhoon? See if you don't scream a little like Sadie did when the actors come careening toward you in the hectic beating glare of a strobe light. Want a elephant? They'll build you one right on the stage out of . . . a trunk, a couple crates and a stool or two.
There are 34 characters in this play. Taproot's production used five actors. Of those, only Phileas himself (played to perfection by Ryan Childers) was not a split personality. Even the ubiquitous Passepartout had to share his skin (that of the incomparable Nolan Palmer) with another character. One remarkable fellow, Andrew Litzky, appeared in 18 roles -- which is a dizzying prospect for a two-hour play. But Taproot Theatre always has amazing actors. Alyson Scadron Branner was a lovely and believable Aouda (and 3 other characters!); Bill Johns was an adorable and not-at-all menacing Monsieur Detectamafix (and 8 other characters!!).
The ultimate hats off must go to the director, Scott Nolte, for his bold vision in bringing such a vivid, wild, and kinetic story into such an intimate setting. He made it work. Not only that, he made it a beautiful, enchanting, seamless, entertaining work of art. As you leave, you say to yourself, "This, this is why we need theatre. This is what theatre is about." Taproot's "Around the World in 80 Days" will uplift your spirits -- no hot air balloon required.
If you are poking around the web, looking for something to do in Seattle this weekend, I hope you find this blog post. Forget Pike's Place Market; shun the Space Needle; forget the gorgeous scenery and hikes and general Puget Sound living. All that stuff will still be around 2 weeks from now. Go see "Around the World in 80 Days"! This is the last weekend, and then *poof* it's gone. You'll be sorry to have missed it.
Taproot Theatre's Box Office: 206-781-9707