With 47 years in the business, the Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) has become accustomed to bringing dynamic and stimulating stories to the stage of Tucson’s historic Temple of Music and Art. Naturally, as seasoned storytellers, the ATC is always an organization that pushes itself to the pinnacle of quality, so what better classical imagination to bring to life than that of fantastic French visionary, Jules Verne? Through March 22, the ATC is bringing one of its most challenging tales to Tucson as the group performs the fantastic voyage depicted in “Around the World in 80 Days”.
The play tells the tale of Phileas Fogg (Mark Anders), a gentleman of fortune who places a large bet in favor of his claim that it is quite possible to travel around the world in 80 days. The idea is preposterous, given the crude methods of transportation available in the story’s 1872 backdrop. With the odds stacked against him, Fogg and his faithful sidekick Passepartout (Jon Gentry) embark on a journey by way of steam boat, train, even elephant-back as they attempt to achieve the impossible, meeting their fair share of whimsical and lovely friends along the way.
Given the vast and expansive subject matter of “Around the World”, a screenplay that calls for visits to Suez, India, China, San Francisco, Paris, and England through various methods of travel, the play seems to fall just a little bit short. As beautiful (and clever) as the set pieces were, the play harbored an overarching feeling that ATC may have just extended itself a little too far this time. Though the company gave a valiant effort at tackling the daunting task of transforming the stage every few moments, the set design left too much to be desired for the audience, never invoking enough stimulation to spark the imagination.
Another oddity for the ATC in their latest production occurs when the company almost pokes fun at their own lack of materials. A prime example of this occurs when the actors are forced to convey to the audience that they are aboard a train by standing single file and making caboose-like body gestures while trudging across stage in front of a small toy locomotive. Moments later, when the train engine is taken by “Indians”, the actors signify this by placing a feather atop the toy. Behavior such as this may draw comparisons to Tucson’s Gaslight Theater, who’s lack of set materials becomes part of the joke, giving off a somewhat “cheesy” vibe. It is acceptable for an off the wall melodramatic theater with audience interaction, but hardly appropriate for such an established (and expensive) theatre group as the ATC.
The play’s saving grace is in its actors. A small team of five performers portray the screenplay’s 30 plus characters from all over the globe. Especially impressive were the acting talents of Jon Gentry and Kyle Sorrell. Gentry provides the greater half of the comic relief for “Around the World”, playing Passepartout, the somewhat clueless Frenchman with a heart of gold. Gentry’s performance achieves a fantastic blend between the wordless slapstick of Charlie Chaplan and the eccentric goofiness of Peter Sellers. Sorrell, on the other hand, takes on the brunt of disguise duties called for in the plays script. Sorrel is an ingenious chameleon and marathon man, constantly sneaking off stage, changing costumes, and re-appearing with a new guise and a fresh accent.
The Arizona Theatre Company has a repertoire of greatness, and for good reason. But despite incredible acting and a promising storyline, Arizona’s premier theatre group may have just bit off more than they could chew in “Around the World in 80 Days”. The play is not terrible by any means, but it hardly lives up to the high standard set by ATC productions before it. Next time, the group would be wise to stay within the lines of their own abilities.