ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL REVIEW:
Mother Road takes audience ‘Around the World’
Sunday, June 3rd, 2018 at 12:02am
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jules Verne’s popular adventure novel “Around the World in 80 Days” has been adapted into so many mediums so often – film, theater, radio, television, even a board game – that it’s impossible to keep up.
Now Mother Road Theatre Company has hit on the brilliant idea of staging, not Jules Verne’s adventure novel, but rather the real life around the world journey of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland that was inspired by the popular novel. Both women started on the same day in November 1889, but from opposite directions, Bly not even aware of her competitor until she reached Hong Kong. Both managed to beat fictional adventurer Phileas Fogg’s 80 days, but the real competition was against one another.
The show was conceived by Mother Road artistic director Julia Thudium, written by Mother Road company member Kelsey Ann O’Keefe, and brought to life by a talented ensemble of actors, most of whom play multiple roles. The exceptions are Jen Stephenson, who plays Bisland, and Jessica Quindlen, who plays Bly.
Bisland was a southern woman of culture, a talented journalist and author, and Stephenson captures her cultured mien admirably. Bly possessed great spunk and character, rising from poverty to become a well-known journalist deeply concerned with the plight of the oppressed. After writing about the poor conditions of women factory workers she was told by her editor to stick to gardening and fashion. She quit. As a writer she is best remembered for getting herself committed to a women’s insane asylum so she could write about conditions there. Quindlen is excellent in the part, capturing her quick intelligence and passion with great economy.
Vic Browder’s multi-level set serves as a giant playground where the actors transform chaos into creativity, to allude to Thudium’s opening night pre-show talk. Center stage is a curtained area that serves to showcase tableaux and silhouetted scenes. For instance Bly witnesses the torture and beheading of prisoners in China and is duly horrified, yet this stylized presentation allows the audience a certain amount of emotional distance whereby they can contemplate the atrocities and not be overwhelmed with horror. In one of the best scenes in the play Vic Browder, behind the curtain, plays a reckless engineer manning the fastest mail train in the U.S. while six cast members seated on the stage right stairs hang on for dear life.
Browder plays a dozen or more characters, including variations on a madman who sprints across the stage screaming every time Bly arrives in a new American city. In another very funny scene, Kathy Mille Wimmer appears behind a counter as Bisland approaches seeking information about an expected train. The scene is played over and over as Bisland goes from France, to England, to Wales, to Ireland. In each iteration of the scene Wimmer changes her hat, places a different flag on the counter, and assumes the appropriate dialect. Wimmer is a wonder with the multiple dialects, and is also wonderful as an aristocratic free spirited Brit in Ceylon who befriends the tightly wound Bisland.
Mother Road shows are few and far between, but always worth the wait.
“Around the World in (less than) 80 Days” is playing through June 10 at the Keshet Center for the Arts, 4121 Cutler NE. For reservations and show times, go to motherroad.org or call 243-0596.
TALKIN' BROADWAY REVIEW:
When Jules Verne published "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1873, his adventure novel was neither fantasy nor science fiction. The world then was a different place than it had ever been before—and than it would ever be again. For the first and last time, the Earth was in reality one world, a single relatively peaceful planet in which travel by ship and train anywhere was possible for an unarmed individual—even a lone woman without weapons, foreign languages or knowledge of the world.
This is the background for Around the World in (Less Than) 80 days: The True Adventures of Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly, a unique comedy that Mother Road opened last week in Albuquerque. And by unique, I mean I doubt there has ever been anything quite like it on a Duke City stage. Mother Road's version of Verne's fictional earth-encircling adventure by Phileas Fogg is actually a race, undertaken in opposite directions by two female journalists in 1889. Most remarkably, it is all true, at least true to their own accounts published contemporaneously in books, Cosmopolitan magazine and the New York World.
The tight 80-day schedule is the greatest obstacle the two women face, and missing it is the greatest danger they encounter. But the schedule of this production imposed its own challenges. Mother Road's Artistic Director and entrepreneur, the energetic and imaginative Julia Thudium, did not select this play until mid-March, giving the company substantially less than 80 days to create the production, at what Thudium called "warp speed." Complicating the task, the play did not exist as a script but only in the books and articles of the participants. From these literary antecedents, Kelly Ann O'keefe wrote an original script in a matter of weeks.
Although Bisland and Bly are neither intellectual giants nor knowledgeable travelers, the result is nothing less than a tour de force. Without poetry or profundity to lean on, the Mother Road ensemble carries the day through energy, hyperactivity, imaginative staging, an attractive and flexible set, an original musical score by Sid Fendley, and direction by Thudium that keeps the dozens of scenes marching in near-military order. That this story of 19th-century feminism is an interesting prologue to the #metoo movement adds an enticing dimension.
The pair of experienced actresses performing as the journalists, Jen Stephenson as Elisabeth Bisland and Jessica Quindlen as Nellie Bly, add immeasurably to the successful outcome of what must have been a challenging project and could easily have been a bore in the wrong hands. The casting is ideal, for it highlights the stark contrasts between two women who are, on multiple levels, foils for each other. Bly is short, slender, blonde and wan (one of the few script glitches occurs when a member of the ensemble—a kind of chorus—describes Bly as having "dark hair"). She is also flirtatious, aggressive, self-confident, ambitious, and hungry for money and recognition. She heads out east from New York, is constantly sick crossing the Atlantic, and of course meets Verne himself.
Bisland is an entirely different kind of woman. She is large, matronly and shy, speaking with a soft Southern accent and addressing the world with gentle modesty. "I do not need to be part of a newspaper headline," she says primly. She follows good advice and heads west from New York, making for an easier and more enjoyable journey. One of the surprising twists of the story is that Bisland turns out to be the more observant and pleasured traveler. After this voyage, Bly marries a millionaire and is never heard of again, while Bisland has caught the travel bug and spends the rest of her life exploring the globe.
One of the biggest laugh lines occurs when Bly is offered the chance to drive a train engine because "there's not much out here between Arizona and Texas."
Ably supporting the starring duo are is ensemble cast consisting of Amy Bourque, Vic Browder, Brennan Foster, Chris Gonzales, Matt Heath and Kathy Wimmer. Each performs multiple roles.
That kind of global gadding was a special product of the age. Many factors united to make it not only possible but plausible. A few years earlier, the completion of the Suez canal, the American Transcontinental Railroad, and the rail line across the Indian subcontinent greatly facilitated travel, as did the proliferation of dependable steamships replacing clipper ships reliant on flighty winds. This was also the peak of the colonial era when five vast empires—British, French, Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian—controlled most of the world, enforcing peace, ensuring safety, and facilitating travel with common currencies and widespread consular services. And with the dissolution of multiethnic empires, the world has become a more dangerous, violent and fragmented place.
Before these technological and political developments, such travel by individuals—male or female—was nearly impossible. Nor could it be easily achieved today. With the end of many passenger trains and nearly all transoceanic passenger service, ground travel has become not faster but slower. A century after the voyages of the two women, the BBC sent a team around the world to duplicate them. Most of the support crew ended up flying part of the way, and even the lead actor and photographer could only find container ships infrequently sailing the Atlantic and Pacific. I did a bit of checking online and such container ships today typically take 14 to 18 days to cross the Pacific from Asia to the west coast of the United States.
It is good fun to imagine yourself in a different era and watch the large and talented ensemble cast of Mother Road re-create a world we may never know again—and to see it done through the eyes of two adventurous women.
Around the World in (Less Than) Eighty Days, through June 10, 2018, at the Keshet Center for the Arts, 4121 Cutler NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday evenings and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more information, visit motherroad.org/ or call 505-243-0596.