Bristol Riverside Theater is celebrating its 20th season with a spectacular production of Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” The anniversary festivities include an opening night gala (held Thursday, September 28), and a variety of other special events — from a theater luncheon at the nearby historic King George II Inn (held Saturday, September 30) to a pre-performance “Sail Around the Delaware in 80 Minutes” riverboat ride on the Riverboat Queen of Bucks County on Saturday, October 7; a “Friday Festival” on October 6 with crudites, desserts, and a discussion about the play by the playwright; and “Wine Down Wednesday” on October 11, with wine and desserts in the lobby before the show. But the best tribute to the theater is the production itself.
Verne’s narrative includes adventures on trains and ships and elephants, but Bristol Riverside has opted for a bare-bones production that relies on the abilities of five actors, who work with a few chairs and a table, placed in front of a backdrop showing a picture of the globe, and observing all this from the proscenium arch is a portrait of Queen Victoria. Standard theatrical lighting and some sound effects are in evidence, and the actors often keep the audience posted by holding up signs, but there’s no music, no projections, none of today’s fashionable (and often distracting) technical resources. What this production relies on is the theatrical ability, both verbal and physical, of the actors, and the audience is thereby drawn much more deeply into the happenings on stage.
For those who may have missed the story, let me just say that the action, which takes place in the 1870s, revolves around a bet, made by Phileas Fogg (Ezra Barnes) at his London club, that he could travel around the world in 80 days or less.
Nothing goes smoothly on the trip. Among other problems Fogg has a habit of losing time by acting on principle — stopping, for example, to rescue a young Indian woman, Aoudo (Alana Gerlach), from a sacrificial death — so to keep to the schedule Fogg, his servant Passepartout (Evan Zes), and Aoudo have some unusual rides. These include using an ice boat to cross the American prairie; backing up the train when they come to an unfinished bridge so they can pick up speed and jump the gulch; and buying the boat they are traveling on when the fuel runs out so they can use the furniture, and eventually the deck, to keep the boilers going full speed. We understand much of what is going on from the dialogue but the real treat lies in watching the actors’ body language to see what is happening.
Barnes, who plays Fogg, is the only actor who does not have multiple roles. The other four portray a total of 32 characters. Zes, as Passepartout, plays his servant role with a heady dose of acrobatics and a stage French accent, which includes the occasional mispronunciation that drives Detective Fix (Tim Moyer) to distraction. Fix is the not overly bright detective who accompanies Fogg for most of his voyage under the mistaken assumption that Fogg is a bank robber. Gerlach, the only woman in the cast, moves from being a manservant, a newspaperman, and a priest to finally settling in as Aoudo.
Moyer is on stage most often as Detective Fix but he is responsible for seven other roles as well. Kenneth Boys is the busiest actor; he manages to portray a total of 18 characters.
All the actors are adept at the role and scene changes, and the audience gets a sense that they are enjoying the game of rapidly switching place and person. Director Edward Keith Baker, the company’s artistic director, is to be thanked for choosing this way of telling the story and for doing it with such panache. The costumes present a challenge too. The actors need to be able to make lightning-fast costume or accessory changes, and Millie Hiibel has designed the costumes so they can do that. The bare-bones, and effective, set is designed by A. Nelson Ruger IV, the lighting by Ryan J. O’Gara. The sound design was by Daniel A. Little. Most noticeable among Little’s achievements is a tornado, which enables Fogg to move faster and make up for time lost to good deeds.
Bristol Riverside Theater has chosen a delightful show to celebrate an important milestone. Those not familiar with the theater may not be aware of its close proximity to Princeton, on the banks of the Delaware River, nor with the fact that it is housed in a former movie theater. They will have a treat savoring the building’s configuration (the stage is large, the auditorium is not), and its location, with a terrace overlooking the Delaware River and the streets of historic Bristol.
“Around the World in 80 Days,” through Sunday, October 15, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. 215-785-0100.