All The World On Stage:
Lookingglass’s Around the World in 80 Days Heads East


December 21, 2009

"Setting: London, Brindisi, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, The American West, New York, and various trains, boats, and other means of conveyance in between."

Any set designer finding that statement on page one of a new script has to think, "How do I do that in one two-hour show?"

Actually, there are two ways to approach such a project. One is to make a virtue out of spending more money on it than has ever been spent before. That’s the Mike Todd approach, which he used half a century ago to create the film version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.  

The other is to take the audience into a partnership of the imagination with touches of humor, cleverness, and a sense of joy at creating theatrical images to take the place of cinematic spectacle.

That other approach is the one that Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre wanted from Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, the husband and wife team who designed their Around the World in 80 Days for director/playwright Laura Eason. The Penrods were brought into the project very early in script development which Jacqueline Penrod says is "very much the Lookingglass way of doing things."

She says that Eason had a few specific concepts in mind from the very beginning. "Laura had a very clear focus which she put into a very few key words, the most important of which was 'delightful.’" Working with the entire design team, "delightful" remained the byword throughout the project.

The Penrods provided a plush Victorian-era central structure with flanking towers connected by a bridge behind a wooden parquet floor concealing multiple traps to accommodate visual effects. The bridge itself became a feature when the Penrods equipped it with two staircases, each of which could slide from side to side or swivel to descend toward the audience or to the sides.

Above the bridge, they placed a wall-spanning world map with concealed lights which illuminated to chart the course of the intrepid travelers as the scenes played out. That helped keep the audience informed of the progress without the necessity of including dialogue in the script such as, "Now we’re in India." 

An additional visual aid for the audience was placed above the map—a row of boxes each containing a model of a mode of transportation: a ship, a train, an elephant (yes, an elephant. This is Around the World in 80 Days, after all). Since so many of the conveyances were to be suggested rather than realistically portrayed, such clues were of great help.

For example, for the famous ride across India on the back of an elephant, a platform big enough for four cast members to climb aboard was raised from the floor with four cloth tubes resembling elephant legs dangling below and a large cloth trunk jutting out in front. The trunk was attached to a pole which one cast member pulled to raise it in an elephant’s roar. Just in case anyone missed the point, sound designer Joshual Horvath provided the roar.

For the wind sled that the intrepid travelers ride, that same platform swung back and forth with a wind effect and recurring "swoosh" in Horvath’s soundscape. For other scenes, movement director Tracy Walsh had the cast swaying and lurching when aboard moving conveyances even when their feet were actually on the stage or the bridge.

The storm at sea sequence required the collaboration of the entire design team, with the Penrods providing the rigging of a sailing ship on which the cast could swing in the wind, lighting designer Lee Keenan providing the flashes of lightening, and Horvath coming up with wind and wave sounds along with crashes of thunder.

While Mike Todd had Victor Young compose what turned out to be an Oscar-winning score for his movie version, Lookingglass turned to Kevin O'Donnell to create an original score that he recorded with a group of six musicians. Horvath added symphonic samples to enrich the sonic feel as the team worked its way toward opening night. O’Donnell said there were many changes during previews. "If we could go into the studio and record it all in one fell swoop, that’d be sweet, but, alas, new work doesn’t really lock in until the very end."

That "very end" proved not to actually be the end. After its Spring 2008 run in Chicago, the production has been remounted at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore with seven of its eight original cast members, including Lookingglass' artistic director Philip R. Smith as the globe circling Phileas Fogg. Some of the features had to be re-designed to meet the needs of the different venue, but the essence of "delight" has been retained.