It's daunting enough getting in the head of one character, figuring out his ticks, motivations, missions. Now how about two? Three? A dozen? In the same play?
It's the challenge for the actors in Around the World in 80 Days, which opens at American Stage Theatre on Friday. In Mark Brown's adaptation of the famous adventure story by Jules Verne, five actors play more than 30 characters, switching with rapid fire between roles in the same scenes.
"You've kind of got to work out the mechanics of it," said Matthew McGee, in the cast with Brad DePlanche, Jonelle Marie Meyer, Brian Webb Russell and Brian Shea. "How are you going to get everything on, where are you going to stand? ... I'm wondering if this is the fastest I've ever seen it done in a show."
Around the World, a funny, family-friendly selection the theater is banking on for the start of spring, tells the story of Phileas Fogg in 1872 London. He takes a bet to travel the globe in 80 days. It's risky and dangerous, plus he's followed by a detective who thinks he's a robber.
Jerid Fox designed the elaborate set with an 8-foot round screen hovering above the stage, meant to feel like the face of Big Ben, there to transport the audience from place to place. There is no hot air balloon, but rather a sailing platform called a sledge. Oh, and an elephant.
"Our concept for the stage was sort of like a Victorian playground that was part steamer ship and part train station," said American Stage artistic director Todd Olson, directing the play. "From that, there are lots of things that pop out of here and rise out of there, and four chairs become this and a puppet comes out of that."
The structure is along the lines of The Mystery of Irma Vep or the Greater Tuna plays with a couple actors playing the entire cast. It has a vaudeville sensibility, Olson said, and requires that level of skill from the actors. But as rehearsals have gone on, he said, he and the cast have uncovered more than just pratfalls.
"The thing about Around the World in 80 Days is it's not just vaudeville, slip on a banana and then you bump your head," Olson said. "I found that even today we were making some discoveries that have to do with core things of Fogg's character. It's not like Mark Brown has taken the old story and made a vaudeville out of it. It's a story of, if you want to find yourself, you have to leave yourself. … I think in the end we're authentically moved."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.