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Recalling Around the World in 80 Days 

Two of my favorite French-speaking literary characters, Hercule Poirot and Phileas Fogg, have similar personalities, cool and precise to a fault, yet surprisingly quick-witted and quick-acting in a crisis. We can have our fill of Poirot, who appears in no less than 33 Agatha Christie novels, but Fogg (an Englishman who only "spoke" French in the original text) was brought to life once by Jules Verne in 1872. His epic adventures in Around the World in 80 Days are so vast that, after the humongous Hollywood version of 1958, Fogg has largely evaporated from popular culture.

So it was a treat to get a chance to reacquaint myself with the ultra-fastidious eccentric up in Greensboro, where Triad Stage is presenting Fogg's circumnavigation within the circumscribed space of four walls in a handy theatrical reduction by playwright Mark Brown. It was also an opportunity to introduce two new generations to the yarn, my stepdaughter and her son. As concepted by Triad artistic director Preston Lane, we got a charming, precise-running cuckoo clock of a production that captured the essence of Fogg's eccentricity and appeal.

Faces peep out of little towers near the corners of the proscenium, announcing train arrivals and assorted plot points. A revolving platform in the middle of this contraption whisks scenes on and off the curtained stage -- or whimsically helps the actors to simulate motion. The twin towers, of course, are only an ornate fraction of the playing space at Triad's thrust theater, so while most of the action is staged in front of the curtain, flanked by the audience on three sides, delicious new surprises are being concocted out of view. Camel, elephant, other attention-grabbers.

The miniaturization is also delightfully handled by the cast of five, who take on a total 34 different roles during the travelogue -- and that's not counting the four Beatles who stride across the stage when Fogg's global expedition finally docks in Liverpool. Almost half of those roles -- and costume changes -- fall to the doughy Michael Tourek, who handles his responsibilities with vaudevillian flair. Nearly as chameleonic is Andrew Rein, whose ten roles include Detective Fix, the implacable Scotland Yard policeman trying to bring Fogg to justice -- on a bogus warrant for a bank heist. Rein manages to give even this scheming meanie a dash of Eric Idle daftness in a Monty Python vein.

Having fired his previous valet earlier in the day for preparing his shaving water at 84° instead of the prescribed 86°, Fogg intrepidly wagers £20,000 at his London club that he can do in fact what the morning Daily Telegraph has asserted is now possible: circumnavigate the world in 80 days on commercially available transportation. He informs his new valet, Passepartout, that they will be embarking that evening to win his bet. It's the precipitous withdrawal of necessary travel funds that rouses suspicions at the Yard.

Passepartout is a goldmine of physical and verbal comedy, as Marks reaps frequent capital in his script over the Frenchman's chronic discolorations of everyday English. Jamison Stern discards subtlety but not elegance as he feasts on Passepartout, with an acrobatic fillip or two along the way. No doubt about it, with the antics of Tourek, Rein, and Fix, there's a bounty of comedy and color.

That these sweets don't capsize the romantic core of this story is a tribute to the protagonists, Ray Collins as Phileas and Elena Araoz as Aouda, the Parsi beauty that Fogg (actually the flamboyant Passepartout executing his master's wishes) rescues from an impending human sacrifice. It's the absolute rectitude of Phileas that ultimately wins Aouda's love -- and, belatedly, Fix's trust -- and Collins plays it with a minimum of showiness and bluster. Araoz has a regal dignity of her own, her personal quest and reserve further forestalling passions between the two. There's a special frisson of satisfaction when the two reach accord that I don't recall from the blockbuster Michael Todd cinema extravaganza.

What I did recall was the gloriously cosmic plot twist that makes the happy ending possible. By this time, the entire audience, young and old, are aboard. But that wasn't true throughout the production. Restlessness among the anklebiters was rampant during the early exposition, with much too much wordiness and not enough action in the setup. Nor did Lane make sufficient allowance for the geographical ignorance that pervades not only his audience but our nation. Graphic representation of where Fogg's party are going -- and where they are -- would have helped younger generations who like to know the score.

Soon enough, the rollicking spirit prevails. When a cigarette is placed in the camel's mouth, we can relax a bit, convinced that the object isn't just preserving Jules Verne and Phileas Fogg but having fun with them as well.

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