Peter D. Kramer

Review: “80 Days” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare

In Reviews on June 30, 2011 at 9:02 am

Phileas Fogg can handle just about anything that comes his way.

Go around the world in 80 days? Just a matter of keeping to the schedule.

Missed the steamer to Yokohama? There’s are other ships, aren’t there?

A typhoon? It’ll only speed his trip.

Nothing flaps the unflappable Fogg. Except, perhaps, the love of a woman.

At Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival this summer, Richard Ercole plays Fogg, a buttoned-down marvel to watch, precise and strait-laced, business-like. (Above, in a photo by William Marsh.) Nothing rattles Ercole. Except, perhaps, the skills of an exceptional comedian.

There are endearing chinks in Ercole’s armor, and Jason O’Connell knows precisely where to find them. (That’s O’Connell, at center as Sir Francis, flanked by the nimble Ryan Quinn, left, as Passepartout, and Ercole as Fogg in a William Marsh photo.)

Director Christopher V. Edwards knows what he has in O’Connell — a man of a thousand walks, faces and accents — and cast him to play 16 characters, each of whom deserves to be listed here: Gauthier Ralph, British Consul, Director of Police, Priest, Sir Francis, Judge Obadiah, Chinese Broker, Ship Clerk, Bunsby, Proctor, Engineer, Mudge, Clerk, Captain Speedy, Ship Engineer, and Train Clerk.

As he did in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” two summers ago, O’Connell — the Clown Prince of Boscobel — makes each character distinct from head to toe, donning any number of wigs, outfits and fake mustaches to make each transformation complete. From the fey Judge Obadiah to the sled-driving Plainsman Mudge to the jingoistic cowboy Proctor, they might all resemble O’Connell in a way, but they are each their own man.

Rebecca Lustig’s costumes are inspired and add greatly to setting the time and place. Likewise, William Neal’s sound, Dan Scully’s lights and Dorothee Senechal’s props help to propel the madcap story.

Edwards’ appropriately breakneck pace makes “Around the World in 80 Days,” a Jules Verne story ingeniously reimagined by playwright Mark Brown, feel like a “Monty Python” skit.

Or, thanks to O’Connell’s wondrous antics, a Tim Conway-Harvey Korman tilt on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Who can forget watching Korman wilt under the power of Conway’s complete comedic characterizations and impeccable timing? Sometimes, all it took was a look to buckle Korman’s resolve. And the audience ate it up, hoping this would be the show where Conway would “get” Korman.

That same dynamic is at play under the tent at Boscobel this summer, where “80 Days” plays in repertory with “The Comedy of Errors” and “Hamlet.” (Go to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival website for the schedule.)

On Opening Night, Ercole did his best to withstand O’Connell’s comic onslaught, raising his gloved fist to his lips repeatedly to stifle a laugh. Even when O’Connell broke character entirely — declaring “I mixed up everything I do in this scene” — Ercole clenched his jaw, tightened his fist and moved on.

Strong man, that Fogg.

Purists might sniff and say actors should be able to hold it together. True, but that misses the pure joy of the moment, the genius of  a comedian in the throes of his craft and co-stars seemingly powerless in his thrall. This is, after all, live theater.

If they were to do this to “Hamlet” (which opens Saturday) it’d be a crime. But “80 Days” is a whirlwind of characters and a spirit of fun pervades Edwards’ well-executed production.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is a great yarn told with a wink and a nod. Every hurdle the story presents is an obstacle Edwards & Co. have to overcome. The script calls for an elephant — which is not in the budget — so they create one with things they have on hand.

(Above, front to back, Wesley Mann, Vaishnavi Sharmi, Richard Ercole and Ryan Quinn, in a photo by William Marsh.)

The rubber-faced Wesley Mann grabs the reins of that pachyderm and plays more than his share of characters — Andrew Stuart, Priest, Conductor, Elephant Owner, Young Parsi, Oysterpuff, and Rev. Wilson’s Servant, a woman cut from the “Monty Python” mold. He spends most of his time as Detective Fix, a Scotland Yard gumshoe who is convinced Fogg is a thief. Mann, another master of physical comedy, delivers the goods.

As Fogg’s faithful valet Passepartout (French for “master key”), Ryan Quinn is a great mix of acrobat and earnest servant, with an outrageous French accent.

Susanna Stahlmann, as Foley, is part props mistress, part ring-card girl, part Foley artist (the person who makes sound effects for movies.) She expertly conjures a typhoon of increasing intensity and makes a pantomimed game of whist so real you’d swear there were cards involved.

Vaishnavi Sharmi plays several roles, none more charming than Aouda, the damsel rescued from certain death who joins the Fogg retinue. When the action slows, aboard the Tankadere to Yokohama, Aouda finds the poetry in the stars and exposes another chink in Fogg’s armor.

At journey’s end, when Aouda confides “it saddens me to think you’ll go through life alone, with no one to share your joys,” the Fogg lifts and we see the man behind the façade — a joyful transformation.

By all means, get to Boscobel for “80 Days,” a side-splitting evening of theater. In the meantime, just for fun, here’s a bit of Tim Conway/Harvey Korman.


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