Like Phileas Fogg, the Londoner who circles the globe with just one servant and a carpetbag, the cast of Penguin Rep’s winning production of “Around the World in 80 Days” travels light.
Joseph J. Egan’s set is deceptively simple: two upstage arches echo the proscenium arch, creating the feel of looking into the wrong end of a globe-trotter’s telescope.
Otherwise, the stage is bare, except for a large, framed map of the world on the upstage wall and a sturdy table and chairs that the cast, and our imagination, turn into everything from a fast-moving sled to trains, steamships and even an elephant named Kiouni.
Rather than making the images seem smaller, this backward glimpse into the telescope reveals a huge story well told.
“Around the World in 80 Days” is a funny, fast-paced wonder of a play, expertly cast and acted, and directed with just the right touch by Thomas Caruso, who staged Penguin’s season-opener, Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern.”
The epic story here is Jules Verne’s, of course, written in 1873. But Mark Brown has adapted it for four men and one woman, in multiple roles and has added dashes of comedy that will remind some of “Monty Python” skits.
Michael Keyloun plays no fewer than 16 parts, each distinct. Notable are Proctor, a Buffalo-Bill-Yosemite-Sam sort of character (with an uncooperative mustache), Speedy, the equally uncooperative Brooklyn sea captain, and Mudge, the buck-toothed sled driver.
Keyloun’s quick changes and impeccable delivery — in whichever role he’s playing at the moment — offer a fine example creating character with the voice, body and a minimum of lines.
When the curtain call arrives, one expects each of Keyloun’s characters to take a bow. The fact that one actor has done all of this work shows the power of his craft.
Hillel Meltzer brings all of his energy to the role of Passepartout, Fogg’s loyal French servant and traveling companion whose name translates as “to go everywhere.”
With an outrageous accent and acrobatic skills to match, Meltzer is a crowd favorite as he crawls, leaps and bounds across the tiny Penguin stage. Young theatergoers of 7 or older — for whom this show is particularly suited — are sure to get a charge out of his physicality; their parents are just as likely to marvel at his verbal gymnastics.
Andy Prosky also tackles his share of roles, as the whistle-speaking court clerk Oysterpuff, an elephant driver, and as Rev. Wilson’s servant, in a long, flowing dress. It is as Scotland Yard’s unstoppable Detective Fix that Prosky, the son of the late great actor Robert Prosky, is most memorable, a perfect foil for Meltzer’s athletic Frenchman.
Meltzer and Prosky are a team of opposites driven by different desires: the heart-on-his-sleeve Passepartout to serve his master; the sly Fix to get his man. Their stylized movements are part of the fun, a tip of the hat to vaudeville.
Bushra Laskar, a native Londoner and the cast’s lone female member, does some cross-dressing of her own, as a sometime narrator and newspaperman. But it is as Aouda — a woman saved from a certain death — that she shines brightest.
In Laskar’s hands, Aouda — whose name is pronounced like “ayuda,” the Spanish word for help — emerges as an equal to Fogg.
Sam Guncler, seen in several Penguin productions — “The Goldman Project” and “Talley’s Folly,” among them — is precise and unwavering as Phileas Fogg, “a man of heart when he has the time.”
He is a cool customer at the center of the story, a character who keeps his head amid a swirl of comers and goers. Guncler provides the show’s rudder, and is spot-on.
Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes are asked to do the lion’s share of scene-setting here — and they don’t disappoint. From Fogg’s well-appointed frock coat and ascot to a Speedy’s hilarious parrot-topped peacoat and Aouda’s gowns — and various headscarves, hats and costumes of all stripes — Doherty’s work whisks us along from London to Calcutta, from Yokohama to San Francisco.
Chris Rummel’s soundscape includes lovely underscoring near the end of the first act, as Fogg and company board a vessel about to hit some rough weather.
Who needs 80 days? Caruso and his exceptional team take us around the world in 2 hours and five minutes, including an intermission.
Barring an extension, Penguin’s “Around the World in 80 Days” will be gone in 20 days, closing Sept. 5.
Mr. Fogg would quickly calculate that with 15 shows remaining at the 108-seat Bobbi Lewis Theater, only 1,620 additional tickets can be sold. And some of those are already taken.
Don’t miss the boat, the train or the elephant named Kiouni.