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Reviewed by C.W. Walker; May 8, 2009

It requires a certain amount of fortitude to mount a stage production of Jules Verne’s epic adventure ““Around the World in Eighty Days.’’ But it takes sheer chutzpah to present it in an intimate jewel-box theatre like the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison — and with a cast of just six performers.

Nevertheless, taking her cue from Verne’s intrepid hero, Phileas Fogg, director Bonnie J. Monte, who also wrote the dramatic adaptation, does just that. Fogg, after all, accomplished a similarly improbable project, circling the globe in 1872, with just two valises, the clothes on his back and a big fat wad of cash.

In these economic times, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s financial reserves are considerably less than that of a wealthy Victorian gentleman of leisure, so lavish stage effects are kept to a minimum. Indeed, Michael Schweikardt’s spare, elegant set design illuminated by Bruce Auerbach’s lighting is the equivalent of those two valises. A railing and gangplank suggest a ship; two wooden benches beside a window stand in for a transcontinental train. There’s an elephant in India but, alas, no hot air balloon.

But just as Fogg had his secret weapon in Passepartout, his loyal and endlessly resourceful man servant, Monte has hers in a small but experienced cast of company veterans. Never have so few worked so hard at conjuring so much.

With more than 30 characters of both genders and multiple nationalities to portray, the five men and one woman are constantly switching costumes and personalities, and the effect is madcap and breathless, like an old Looney Tunes cartoon. In between scenes, they take turns delivering the bridging narrative and what might have been plodding and talky becomes highly imaginative and, at times, even magical.

All of the performers manage the considerable feat of delivering sophisticated, stylized performances that mine the humor of often outlandish situations without becoming too broad or to silly. Tall and lean with a Sherlock Holmesian inscrutability, Robert Krakovski cuts a fine figure as the unflappable and efficient Fogg. Kevin Isola’s thickly accented Passepartout — short, rubber-legged and perpetually exasperated — provides the perfect sidekick and comic foil. Maureen Sebastian is a charming love interest as Aoda, the Indian princess rescued from a widow’s pyre.

Hot on their trail is David Foubert’s Detective Fix, a clueless bloodhound who mistakenly identifies Fogg as a notorious bank robber and then must absorb hilarious amounts of physical hardship and abuse to prove it. Jay Leibowitz bounces between providing narration in plummy tones and filling the shoes of an endless world-wide parade of local bureaucrats.

However, it is Shakespeare Theatre veteran Edmond Genest who earns Most Valuable Player honors. His repertoire of colorful characters includes a British explorer, an inebriated judge, a pugnacious cowboy and a wacky ice sledder. Considering the amount of effort he invests in each role and the speed at which he’s required to make the transformations, he’s going to sorely need a long vacation after this play’s run.