Take one part Charlie Chaplin, one part Inspector Clouseau, and a dusty old Jules Verne adventure adapted for the stage by playwright Toby Hulse.
Mix in the comic genius of Natascha Girgis, with a generous helping of director Mark Bellamy’s unique brand of relentless theatricality, and what have you got?
A clever production of Around the World in 80 Days, Alberta Theatre Projects’ holiday presentation of Jules Verne’s cockeyed classic.
Hold on. Classic might be the wrong word. Just because a story is old and British and features a posh gentleman character like Phileas Fogg (Rylan Wilkie, strutting like a pale, portentous peacock), a detective (Sanjay Talwar) from Scotland Yard as relentless as Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, and Girgis’s Chaplin-esque Passepartout doesn’t make Around the World in 80 Days a classic.
It makes it a bit like an episode of The Amazing Race set in the late 19th century, when Britain was an empire, everyone else was a cartoonish stereotype and the only air travel was in a helium-filled balloon, turning the prospect of traversing the globe into a genuine challenge for Fogg, a champion of technology — watches! the Suez Canal! the locomotive! — that is rapidly transforming the planet into one big business opportunity for gentlemen such as himself.
That commitment to the contemporary sets in motion a bet Fogg makes with a couple of skeptical members of his posh London gentleman’s club that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, riding trains, boats and — spoiler alert — elephants on a non-stop journey that takes Fogg and Passepartout through Europe, Egypt, India, Hong Kong, Japan, the U.S. and back to England again.
It’s pretty manic — the theatrical equivalent of an evening of trying to make one connecting flight after another, as the duo spends the entire play in motion, trying to win Fogg’s bet. That makes for a multimedia experience, featuring fun visuals (from Kaely Dekker), an imaginative set (from Narda McCarroll) and lots of comic mishaps (from Girgis, many of them quite funny) that replace anything resembling self-reflection, introspection, character development or plot twists to speak of (although there is a half-baked crime subplot to hang it all on).
It really shouldn’t work, but if you ever had a little dormant wanderlust trapped inside a body with a day job, 80 Days will unleash it (hide the credit cards! Stash your passport in a drawer)
What holds it all together is the need for Fogg and Passepartout to keep the pedal to the metal to make it back to the club in London within 80 days to claim Fogg’s large bet, and the relentless detective Fix of the Yard, who keeps waiting for a warrant to arrive from England so that he can arrest Fogg and charge him with a shocking crime committed in the opening scene.
It’s supremely silly, and Bellamy never misses an opportunity to chuck the plot away for a while to work a gag as hard as he possibly can.
Sometimes, such as when Fogg and Passepartout (Girgis) are trying to get a visa out of Egypt, he just chucks the story out the window and does his best to channel Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner — and, despite your brain’s best efforts to resist, he usually generates big laughs.
Broad comedy is a fine line to tread in 2013 — the Pink Panther came out in 1964! — but in 80 Days, Bellamy has cast an inspired comic trio in Girgis, Wilkie and Talwar to work his theatrical funny business with.
It’s all a little bit retro, including Verne’s pesky ethnic stereotyping — it treads a fine line between lame 19th century efforts at cultural comedy and something offensive — but overall, 80 Days’ old school, 19th century slow ride around the planet, guided by the divinely comic Natascha Girgis, wins you over.