By Michael Mell
There is always competition between actors for roles, but it must have been especially keen for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s (HVSF) production of Around the World in 80 Days. Aside from the opportunity to tell a story that, literally, spans the globe, they all appear to be having as much fun, if not more so, than the audience. The original story, by Jules Verne (and adapted for the stage by Mark Brown) details the adventures of the wealthy Phileas Fogg and his manservant, Passepartout, as they travel around the world to win a£20,000 wager. Along the way they have many adventures, overcome all the odds, win the wager and the rather circumscribed Mr. Fogg finds love.
Christopher Edwards, who also directed last year’s Bombitty of Errors, has again created a rapid-fire, no joke left untold, no gag left un-gagged, no reference left un-referenced, whirlwind of a story that mimics that of the protagonists as they race to complete their 80-day journey. To accomplish this feat Edwards takes advantage of four familiar faces from the HVSF roster (Jason O’Connell, Richard Ercole, Ryan Quinn, and Wesley Mann) and two newcomers (Vaishnavi Sharma and Susanna Stahlmann), who more than keep up with these veterans of hot summer nights under the tent at Boscobel. The essence of their success, and so that of this production, is exquisite timing, ensemble playing and the ability to move seamlessly from actor to narrator and back without missing a beat or interrupting the breakneck pace of the story. This reviewer was reminded of sketches from the Carol Burnett Show, where a similar camaraderie between performers was evident and there was always a “nod and a wink” to the audience. There is much emoting, gnashing-of-teeth, scenery chewing (though, as with all HVSF productions, the scenery is minimal) and scene stealing: all in good service to the story.
There is much comedy in Shakespeare’s writing, even in the tragedies, but it is always employed in service to the play. In Around the World, the performers are free to move the comedic aspects to the fore and they do so with great relish and gusto. The ensemble work of the cast makes it unfair, perhaps, to single out any one performer, but kudos must be given to Jason O’Connell who slips in and out of 16 characters in an instant. Each character remaining distinct, which is key to the conceit of one actor playing multiple roles. Wesley Mann, who always seems to have a smile lurking beneath, even when portraying the most serious characters, is given full rein as the bumbling detective who pursues Fogg in the mistaken belief that Fogg is a thief. Vaishnavi Sharma does her share of playing to the crowd, but her character of Aouda (who is rescued by and falls in love with Fogg) is a calm center of the storm of antics swirling around her. Sharma’s wistful portrayal, too, sets off the manic nature of the other characters. Richard Ercole plays Fogg as the story’s straight man, blithely unaware of havoc he causes and all the more amusing because of it. His composure is unruffled, except for his declaration of love for Aouda at the end and during certain scenes where, much to the audiences delight, Ercole is at great pains not to laugh out loud in the face of O’Connell’s adlibbing and mugging.
In the director’s notes, Edwards speaks of the play “as an allegory for the journeys of metamorphosis we all take in life.” This may be so, but not likely on the minds of the audience leaving the performance winded from laughing and arms sore from clapping.
Photo by William Marsh