New theater, old material at the UO
by Suzi Steffen
No matter the skill with which Stevo Clay, Lizzie Malarkey, Devika Bakshi and Bobby Vrtis play the main characters; no matter how outrageously fun the costumes, the star of the UO’s new production of Around the World in 80 Days can’t help but be the remodeled Robinson Theatre.
The UO Theatre folks’ renovated baby emerged from swaddling plastic looking lovely. The 300-person seating, raked at a much steeper angle than before, allows for full views of the stage below. Lighting and sound all seemed to work well the night I saw the play, and I imagine that the tech folk enjoy their new space tremendously. I’m sure the costume shop people, formerly housed in a dangerous little spot in the basement, are having a great time in their new, windowed area. Costume designer and historian Sandy Bonds practically floated through the lobby on the night of the gala opening, and actors Ryan Primm, Kathleen Leary, John Jeffrey and Gwenmarie White take great glee in donning a variety of costumes. “The new theater is phenomenal,” says director and theater prof Sara Freeman. “What an honor to get to be the first show in there.”
Some of Around the World in 80 Days elicits laughter or cheers for various actors and the set itself. That said, the script and production both play host to a variety of problems. There’s the too-lengthy first act, which should be trimmed or even whacked. But mainly, there’s the source material. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, published in 1872, trades hard on cultural stereotypes. This adaptation comes from a 2001 adaptation by Mark Brown.
Perhaps, as Freeman told me, it’s true that “the play is working with stereotypes all the way around,” including wild Victorian moustaches for the British men in the Reform Club and the main character’s reticence and obsession with science. But there’s a difference between that and the wild chanting in the Brahmin suttee scene or the white actor playing a “Chinese” man who makes statements in which the letter R always turns to L (i.e. “velly” for “very”).There’s a difference between the annoying characterization of a white American as a man who can’t tell the difference between England and France and the same scene’s ignorance about Indians (Apaches, supposedly). Freeman says that she and the actors decided to go with “funny moustaches and big accents” everywhere, making it fair on the stereotype front. But historical genocide and racism make certain parts resolutely unfunny.
So why this script? And can something that walks the edge of racist caricature be “family-friendly”? The eight actors play 39 parts and manipulate the clever set with élan, and the remodeled theater welcomes the complex production. I just can’t quite do the same.
Around the World in 80 Days runs through Feb. 7 at the Robinson Theatre. Tix at 346-4363.