It's very probable that Jules Verne, French author and one of the fathers of science fiction, never anticipated that his "Around the World in 80 Days" would be playing as a madcap farce on stages in 2017. Yet TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has pulled it out of the time capsule, bringing the 2001 adaptation by playwright Mark Brown to Palo Alto this holiday season.
"Around the World in 80 Days" follows the story of a British gentleman named Phileas Fogg, whose life has been completely predictable, punctual and devoid of friendship or family. He's driven out several servants with his finicky and exacting behavior, and the gentleman at his club think he's a bit of an odd duck. When a new servant, a Frenchman named Passepartout, arrives, he sees this as the perfect assignment: After a wild and unpredictable life, he's ready to settle down and have some stability.
On the day Passepartout arrives, the men at the gentlemen's club read an article announcing the completion of a transcontinental railroad in British-held India -- making it technically feasible for a person to complete a round-the-world trip by train and steamship for the first time. Fogg wagers that he can make it in 80 days and the men take him up on it, to the tune of £20,000.
Thus begins an adventure that takes Fogg, Passepartout and the friends, enemies and unexpected allies they make along the way around the world. Throw into the mix a bumbling detective bent on arresting Fogg for a suspected robbery, an Indian princess rescued from certain death and several natural disasters, you should have the recipe for a good time.
From a purely technical perspective, TheatreWorks puts on a fantastic show. The conceit of Brown's adaptation of the book has five actors playing all of the parts, switching costume, accent, gait and facial hair at the drop of a hat. As with any good farce, there are pratfalls, mistaken identities and silly sound effects galore. Under the direction of Robert Kelley, the cast handles this script admirably, with comedic timing so precise they'd make the "real" Phileas Fogg proud.
As far as the acting goes, every actor is a standout, so the fact that they can work together without upstaging one another is another feat. Both Jason Kuykendall (as Fogg) and Ajna Jai (as the princess Aouda) do an admirable job of playing the "straight man" foils to the character work going on around them. Ron Campbell, whose ability to shapeshift into just about any character with the application of a fake mustache or a hat is absolutely stunning (and is often the source of the audience's loud guffaws). Michael Gene Sullivan, as well, is a master at hamming up the bit parts; in addition, his ability to give Detective Fix a palpable character arc and emotional growth while also doing pratfalls is commendable. It's Tristan Cunningham, however, who carries the show as the hapless Passepartout. Her character work, acrobatic skills and energy are unparalleled.
But for all of its merits from the technical perspective, there is one very large painted elephant in the room: the racism inherent in the source material.
Jules Verne wrote his book at a time when the British and French saw no problem in colonizing Asia. The perspective of this white, male author shows us that the Eastern parts of the world -- and the people living there -- are strange, savage, and "other." The characters we meet, as a result, are incredibly crude stereotypes that play to the worst of ethnic fetishization.
That may have been all well and good in the 1870s, when this book first appeared, but for an audience in 2017, it's entirely cringeworthy. Culture is literally worn as a costume in this play -- costumes that are meant to highlight the difference between the civilized Western man and his Eastern counterpart.
It's material like this, wherein "otherness" is the primary driver of the comedy, that continues to contribute to the very problems we're experiencing in our politics and culture now: suspicion, hatred and violence against people of color. It's not enough that there was diversity in this cast; the text itself is flawed, because it asks us to "punch down" and laugh at people who will ultimately be hurt by these supposedly funny stereotypes.
It's disappointing, because the blatant racism of the material does the TheatreWorks team a disservice -- the acting, direction, set design and technical execution were all flawless. But the source material rings far too hollow in 2017 to act as a solid foundation for this talented team. The playwright wrote, in a note shared on his blog, that his intent was to poke "fun at nearly everyone." But intent is not the same as impact and when the only person who makes it out unscathed by satire is the white man with the savior complex, it might be time to take a step back and ask whether the play is really doing for the audience what it intends.
I wanted to love TheatreWorks' production of "Around the World in 80 Days" but I couldn't get past the discomfort of being complicit in the very thing I protest outside of the theatre enough to muster a laugh. If the playwright had used Verne's text to comment on the problematic nature of the stereotyping and othering in Verne's book, it might have been a better production. As a farce that celebrates the source material without a critical eye, "Around the World in 80 Days" falls flat.
Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: "Around the World in 80 Days."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Dec. 31 (see online for specific showtimes).
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.