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 the word literally—I doubt if there has every 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 play 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 play, 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 to the story.
The pair of experienced actresses performing as the journalists, Jen Stephensen 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, blond 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 an elderly 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 an ensemble cast consisting of Amy Bourque, Vic Browder, Brennan Foster, Chris Gonzales, Matt Heath and Kathy Millé 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 facilitate 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.
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. And with the dissolution of multiethnic empires, the world has become a more dangerous, violent and fragmented place.
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 U.S.
It is good fun to imagine yourself in a different era and watch the 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. The play continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday evenings and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 10 at the Keshet Center for the Arts, 4121 Cutler NE in Albuquerque. For tickets and more information go to motherroad.org. or call 505-243-0596.