Penfold Theatre’s Around the World in 80 Days

This original, gender-bending theatrical take on Jules Verne's adventure tale is a grand story told with delightful imagination

(l-r) Megan Sherrod, Eva McQuade, Jessica Hughes, and Robert Berry in Around the World in 80 Days

One day, a debate arises in one of those staid, elite 19th century London clubs for gentlemen: How long does it take to circumnavigate the globe? A woman, one Phyllida Fogg, declares that she could manage the voyage in a mere 80 days. "Impossible!" cry the assembled creaky old gentlemen. Also, what is a woman doing trying to join the Reform Club? A wager is made for 20 thousand pounds to see if Fogg can do it.

Thus begins Penfold Theatre's summer production, a goofy, family-friendly adaptation of Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Phileas Fogg has become Phyllida (Jessica Hughes), the French valet Passepartout is also a woman (Eva McQuade), and six actors play all the roles in an adventure story that makes a full circle around the planet. They make stops in Egypt, India, China, Japan, and the United States, rushing against the clock to make it back to London by December 21. Meanwhile, Fogg is pursued by Detective Fix (Robert Berry), who suspects she is behind a bank robbery that took place just before she left London.

The Victorian adventure tale is rich in source material. The idea of journeying through foreign lands in a pre-globalized era holds a certain romantic appeal. Fogg's path relies on newly constructed British railways and steamships and the network of outposts and consulates that made the world England for a time. And that would be neat, wouldn't it? Sail across oceans and cross entire continents as master of the realm!

The appeal wanes somewhat if you recall that living in the British Empire was pretty wonderful, if you happened to be a British gentleman. For everybody else, reality was often a bit different.

To make a family-friendly show out of it, Penfold stretches a bit, but it comes together. Accents are all over the place – not because of the cast, whose abilities are solid, but because it's a better choice to have a white actor playing an Indian peasant leading an elephant through the jungle speak with a sort of Cockney accent than an Indian one, given all the issues of race and class which are tangled beyond the ability of a 500-word review to resolve. Similarly, the switching of gender roles is nodded to initially, but the adaptation by Emily Rankin, who also directs, is not making a big thing of it. "Don't overthink it," the narrator (Megan Sherrod) says more than once.

Good advice. It's also necessary to accept the plot twist upon which the whole thing rests, but that's the show in a nutshell: This is a goofy story that's completely aware that its source material is not without problems, but let's have some fun anyway.

Penfold has made a practice of staging their summer shows with an inventive flair. Here they manage railroad and steamship crossings, elephant rides, and tiger-haunted forests with delightful imagination. Rankin's adaptation and direction are suitable to the venue and the audience. The script has the actors break character frequently for silly exchanges ("What's the plural of 'mongoose'?"), and cutting down on those interruptions would improve the pacing without sacrificing the silliness.

The actors embrace their parts with flair and engage the audience at the right pitch for the outdoor show. Around the World is a grand story told playfully and a good production for a summer family adventure.

Around the World in 80 Days

Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad, Round Rock, 512/850-4849
Through June 24
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

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Around the World in 80 Days, Penfold Theatre, Jules Verne, Emily Rankin, Jessica Hughes, Eva McQuade, Robert Berry, Megan Sherrod

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