Valancy is a struggling actor and impoverished producer of feminist work

 

I knew very little about this play going in, never having read the Jules Verne novel or seen the movie, but I was definitely expecting a hot air balloon and kept looking at the ceiling to see if they were rigged for it. I had several friends in the cast of this production and am familiar with Damon Bonetti’s work as a director; I know he has a penchant for this kind of bare-bones, fast paced farce, having previously directed the similarly structured “39 Steps” at Hedgerow a few years ago. I was prepared to laugh, although this genre of comedy is not my favorite, since it depends so heavily on the versatility of the few actors and their rapid-fire delivery of the snappy dialogue.

 

I saw the opening performance, and while the actors I know and love did not disappoint, a little of the confidence in the text that comes through repetition was lacking. However, these moments of hesitation were few and the majority of the production felt polished, like the tracks of a well-maintained roller-coaster. Sarah Knittel and Mark Swift, in particular, kept the action rolling with their exquisite timing and precise physical comedy skills, the former as the delightfully innocent and well-intentioned French side-kick to Jared Reed’s hero, and the latter as the dogged yet dim Detective Fix, who follows the pair around the world in a bizarre and hilariously extreme case of mistaken identity. Both actors are adept at the twisting language that would trip up most.

 

Jared Reed acted as a perfect foil to the hyper-activity of his co-actors with a wonderfully controlled performance as Phileas Fogg. I was also impressed by his transition from the opening curtain speech, as himself, to the sudden chaos of the play itself. It’s a popular gimmick in Philadelphia at the moment, to have the lead actor display his expertise by delivering the curtain speech and then sliding into the first lines of the play, and I usually hate it, because there’s not enough of a membrane between reality and fantasy. And I want the fantasy. I already know you’re a talented actor; I don’t need to see how effortlessly you can move from conversation with me to dialogue with a co-actor. However, Reed paid his audience the compliment of maintaining that fragile membrane and allowing us to shift into the action as he did.

 

One of the great stars of the show was the collaboration between set, props and actors, and I’m not sure to whom the credit belongs, although I suspect director, Bonetti, is responsible for the concept. I love contemplating maps, and so to have a large, wall-sized map of the world as a backdrop, with nearly invisible doors which hide prop cupboards, was divine inspiration. As an actor, it gave me prop malaise, fearing a door would be opened to reveal nothing… or worse still, the WRONG something. I needn’t have worried, because every time an actor pulled another square of map open, the item he or she sought appeared as if by magic. And magical it was.

 

But for me, the most magical moments of all were a result of how the cast transformed the one set-piece, an odd-looking box on wheels. It became boat, desk, elephant, train and anything else the scene required. Wonderfully creative storytelling, thanks to set designer, Shaun Yates, props designers, Susan Wefel and Juliet Grey, and the entire cast, who took us on this journey of discovery, making us laugh and hold our breath in anticipation, by turns.

 

The sound design by Aaron J. Oster added just the right amount of punctuation to the self-consciously melodramatic moments of the play, from the sound of swooshing arrows as the train is attacked by a war party, to the “ta-da!” chords everytime someone made reference to the title of the play, “Around the World,” to the iconic notes of Law and Order when the hero is ordered to appear before a judge. These moments in the soundscape gave me the sense I was in on the fun, and I found myself anticipating the next such moment with glee.

 

I loved the 1870’s costumes by Janus Stefanowicz, particularly Sarah Knittel’s French dandy, Jared Reed’s elegant, aloof gentleman and Hanna Gaffney’s transformation from Indian princess to corseted English society lady.

 

I applaud the ambition of this production and am finding that I’m not such an enemy of the minimalist farce as I once was, when directed well and performed with confidence. I appreciate the gender blind casting that allowed Sarah Knittel to shine as Passepartout, and am glad that in this instance they chose not to make the character a woman, but gave Knittel a mustache instead. A female companion would have been too forward thinking for an upright Victorian gentleman like Fogg. It was, for me, a lovely nod to past and present mores and gave me a sense of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go… particularly in matters of race on stage. Naturally, because, as the title suggests, the story involves a trip around the world, and there are only five actors, certain actors are called upon to play races and ethnicities not their own. This would not be a problem, if the cast itself had diversity. As it was, there were moments the comedy felt inappropriate, and I held my breath hoping for the least offense possible. I acknowledge that the geography of the theatre plays a role in how diverse a company they are able to assemble, but it’s important to me to see the attempt being made. And I’m not seeing the attempt yet at Hedgerow. I know they can do better, and I’m eager to see them do it.

 

2 thoughts on “Around the World in 80 Days- Hedgerow Theater

  1. Love it… A white director and all white cast presenting a play about THE ENTIRE WORLD and you guys barely mention that “they could be doing better” with casting. They’re on a train line… they can get diverse cast… it’s not that they “should” be doing better, they must do better, there’s no reason to support art like this.

    Like

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