'Around the World in 80 Days' is Lookingglass at its beguiling best
by Hedy Weiss
Maybe it's the delicious clockwork nature of the whole adventure. Or its droll, "Pink Panther"-like humor. Or the clever magnetic map that makes it so easy to track the breathless voyage by land and sea. Or maybe it's the winning delicacy of the East-West romance that begins to bubble up over teacups that can't quite find their equilibrium at sea.
And of course there can be no question about it: That thrilling escape on the back of an elephant in India, and that snow-speckled glide on a sail-driven sled over the Great Plains are pure, unadulterated magic.
Happily, there is no need to choose any particular giddy pleasure, for Lookingglass Theatre's utterly beguiling production of "Around the World in 80 Days" is chock full of them. And you can take the journey without a passport, or the hassles of airport check-in or guilt about leaving a giant carbon imprint.
This production is Lookingglass at its very considerable best -- a high-spirited, imagination-filled escapade that makes use of a slew of theatrical tricks, among which the most notable is the ability of a polymorphous eight-person cast to suggest a cast of hundreds. And Laura Eason's exceptionally graceful adaptation of the Jules Verne classic -- which she also has directed with the lightest and most seamless sense of balletic whimsy -- manages to be both wise and fun-filled. Yes, it makes its points about the British colonial mind, the attitudes of both the ruled and the ruler, the sadness of exile, and the essential yin and yang of personalities needed to make this world tick, but it does so with exquisite understatement. Above all, in a story driven by the making of wagers, it lays its bets on enchantment and invariably comes up a winner.
The story is stopwatch-driven: Phileas Fogg (Philip R. Smith, in an ideal role he handles with great subtlety) is a wealthy, obsessively habit-driven British bachelor with no flair for the poetry of life but a certain reckless belief in his own infallibilty. When news of the completion of a portion of India's railroad network -- and the possibility of circling the globe in 80 days -- makes its way around his cigar-smoke-filled gentleman's club, he bets his life savings that he can do it.
Luckily, his new French valet, the former circus performer Passepartout (another stellar turn by the tireless, acrobatic, comically brilliant Kevin Douglas), will be by his side. The two set out with nothing but a stash of cash and books of train and ship schedules. It's Passepartout who sees and experiences everything along the way (and often comes close to losing his life), but it is Fogg who falls in love with Mrs. Aouda (the ravishing Ravi Batista), the eye-opening young Indian widow he rescues. And in doing so his world view shifts radically.
Joe Dempsey is a hoot as Inspector Fix, a Clouseau-like investigator from Scotland Yard who trails the two travelers all along the way. And Nick Sandys (also the fine fight director), Rom Barkhordar, Ericka Ratcliff and Anish Jethmalani are brilliant in countless roles, from sailors to acrobats.
Jacqueline & Richard Penrod's set (think of it as a ship, a study or a luxurious cigar humidor) is exceptionally handsome and complex, with Mara Blumenfeld's Victorian-era costumes, Lee Keenan's lighting, Joshua Horvath's wonderfully evocative sound, Kevin O'Donnell's musical scoring and Tracy Walsh's choreography all intrinsic to the beauty and wit of this production -- a show that should sail the world.
'AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS'
HIGHLY RECOMMENDEDWhen: Through June 1
Where: Lookingglass Water Tower Water Works, 921 N. Michigan
Phone: (312) 337-0665
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