Thursday March 28, 2013

STEPHANIE L. RYAN

BENNINGTON -- Even the mathematical Phileas Fogg can't plan for all contingencies - and that's part of the fun of Oldcastle Theatre Company's production of "Around the World in 80 Days," written by Mark Brown and based on Jules Verne's classic novel by the same title.

The action begins with Fogg's bet, against the other members of the Reform Club: That since rail lines across India are now complete, he can, as a newspaper article suggests, circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Well-provided with cash and attended by his new manservant Passepartout, he sets off that very night by train to begin the voyage, and win his 20,000-pound (about $2 million, in modern currency) bet. Pack your carpetbag and grab your passport, and be ready for a wild, and very funny, ride.

Individual actors swap back and forth among parts (with Richard Howe tackling eight, and Patrick Shea a mind-boggling 16 roles over the course of the action), and it's a lot of fun to see what small shift in costuming or accent is going to bring out the next character Fogg will meet. Peter Langstaff plays club member John Sullivan as well as the long-suffering Passepartout, and Sarah Corey carries three roles, among them the main female character, Aouda, a princess encountered in India. Gil Brady, as the unflappable Fogg, stays with the one character throughout, and is the pivot around which the action rotates.

It would be easy, with so much going on, to lose track of who's who at any given moment - some of the character shifts happen with nothing more than the removal of a hat, or a change of position on the stage - but the actors find ways, and accents, that make the characters distinct.

"I caught on quickly and felt they did a good job changing and keeping the characters and/or identities separate," said audience member Christi Pringle. "Very whimsical."

Costumer Liz Stott is also to be lauded for managing to turn five people into 39, with an absolute minimum of complete costume changes, and a great many accessories doing the trick.

The cast makes much of the two-level stage (designed by Howe, wearing yet another hat as set designer) and its handful of furnishings; a few chairs and a table combine and recombine to represent a gentleman's club, trains, boats, pagodas, a sledge, various consulates, and even an elephant, traveling across the interior of India. With tea; even on a world-spanning voyage, the proprieties must be observed.

In addition, actors pause to offer narration, and characters periodically stop to argue with what the narration has to say, with hilarious results. They also provide the bulk of the special effects, most commonly the sounds and juddering of the ubiquitous trains, but also variances in weather, and one heart-stopping leap.

The next twist could pop up anywhere, from one of the three doors on stage, offsides, or even the rear of the theater. Oldcastle has a versatile new space to work with, downtown, and its people are plainly enjoying the opportunity to explore it. Front-row audience members may find themselves very nearly a part of the action - a seating choice this reviewer recommends from personal experience.

David Groupé's lighting design allows the minimalist stage and set design to metamorphose into a myriad locations, while stage manager Sophia Garder keeps things moving at the pace a slapstick comedy requires.

Performances continue at Oldcastle's 331 Main Street location, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m., through April 7. Adult tickets are $37; stident tickets are $10. Seating is stadium-style, and general admission.