There is something inherently exciting about theatre in the round. There’s nothing wrong with conventional theatre, of course: sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow audience members, everyone staring straight ahead at a proscenium stage, the actors projecting out at you, putting on what can only be called, well, a show. But theatre in the round, my friends…. Audience on all four sides, the actors totally exposed and playing to everyone, everywhere. Nowhere to hide, the props and sets minimal and—out of necessity—multi-purpose.
This is where stories become layered with a new kind of electricity and audience members become engaged in a brand-new way.
I have been fortunate enough to see some great productions performed in the round, including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and (in what would become a highlight of my theatrical life) Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. All of these shows could be—and have been—done on a conventional stage, facing a singular sea of cushioned seats; but seeing them in the round—with every single seat a new vantage point and no one common picture—made these familiar scripts come alive in unexpected ways.
Last Thursday night I had another very positive theatre experience watching the final dress rehearsal of Around the World in Eighty Days, a fun and quirky adaptation by Laura Eason of the classic Jules Verne novel. In this lively production, directed by Tom Mitchell, a cast of fourteen actors bring fifty or so characters to life and, in so doing, make eighty days of travel fly by in a scant two hours.
I will say at the outset that this is not a flawless script. It’s a little heavy on the exposition, and the stilted dialogue makes it clear that this will be a certain kind of play—the kind where realism and dramatic tension take a backseat to broad characterization and easy resolution.
But here’s the thing: there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.
This play, if approached for what it is, is highly enjoyable. And that is a common theme with a lot of the shows produced by Parkland College Theatre, which has become one of the most consistent venues around. If you were looking for a kids’ show about pirates, for instance, they’ve done that show, and they did it very well. Ditto a charming adaptation of Jane Austen with last season’s Pride and Prejudice and a tense reworking of a classic thriller with Wait Until Dark. In this instance, Around the World in Eighty Days is a Cliff’s Notes version of the Verne adventure perfectly suited to students and families. Take it for what it is, and enjoy.
Case in point: on the night that I attended, there was a young lady (elementary school age) sitting in the front row who watched the action unfold with rapt attention. She was delighted by the shenanigans of the actors, not to mention the stagecraft that produced both an elephant ride and falling snow. I’ll admit that, as I glanced over occasionally and saw her enjoying herself so entirely, I was delighted, too.
Script issues aside, there is a lot to like about this production, starting with the use of the space by director Tom Mitchell. At the very top of the show is a clever sequence that utilizes the space brilliantly and establishes the fastidious manner of protagonist Phileas Fogg (played with great charm and reserve by Jeremiah Lowry). From there, the swift and impressive set changes (courtesy of a smooth ensemble and fantastic design by Moon Jung Kim) keep the momentum flying forward and ensure that there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
There are a few lulls in the action, and these can feel over-long in the midst of such a whirlwind adventure, but the cast is uniformly entertaining as they bounce from identity to identity. Particularly impressive are Warren Garver and Malia Andrus, who spark in a variety of supporting roles, although solid work is done by all. Andrus also designed the costumes for this fashionable romp, by the by, and everyone looks loverly. The accents amongst the ensemble do get a little dodgy at times, but the characterizations never blur into one another.
The three actors who anchor the show—Lowry, Evan Seggebruch (as Fogg’s nimble French valet Passepartout), and Ryan Jenkins (as love interest Aouda)—are a fun trio to watch, each bringing a different energy to the play’s core. As Passepartout, Seggebruch is instantly likable for his outsize, cartoonish accent and movements. As Aouda, the woman Fogg rescues and later falls for, Ms. Jenkins is a sweet presence, and her interactions with Lowry have what can only be described as a twinkle.
Which brings me to Mr. Lowry. I remember the first time I saw him on stage, in the Station Theatre’s production of God of Carnage. I remember thinking he was a competent and engaging actor, doing well with a relatively one-note part in a play that had more hype going for it than actual substance. Having seen him this past Thursday, playing a very different role in a very different play, I must say that I was extremely impressed. The subtlety with which Lowry shows Fogg’s arrogance, his fortitude, and his underlying sensitivity is something to behold, and I hope to see him on stage again and often.
All-in-all, this is a solid show and certainly worth seeing. I would consider it especially worthwhile for young people, whose uninitiated eyes will open wide at both the quick-change antics of the actors and the magic of theatre in the round.
Around the World in Eighty Days will continue its run at Parkland College through Sunday, November 23. For more information, visit the Parkland Theatre website.
Photos by Sam Logan.