Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Ensemble Theatre's 'Around the World' wizardry

From buffalo to balloon, troupe squeezes '80 Days' onto small stage

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Going around the world at the end of the 19th century was more adventuresome than traversing the globe at the end of the 20th. These days you just jump on a jet.


        Back in the 19th, at least according to Jules Verne, you schoonered across the ocean, and took a train across the American West, accompanied by stampeding buffalo. You rode an elephant across India, and nipped across Europe by hot air balloon.

        Your travels took what today we would consider a leisurely 80 days. One hundred years ago, those 80 days were a race against time.

        The challenge in Ensemble Theatre's holiday musical take of Around the World in 80 Days wasn't one of time, although scenic designer Brian Mehring has loaded the set with all manner of clocks, and most of the characters wear great big watches. @subhed:Problems to solve @rbody:

        The challenge was getting stampeding buffalo, a hot-air balloon and an 18-foot Indian elephant (known around the theater as Rhonda) on ETC's small stage.

        “I tried not to create problems that I knew would be insurmountable,” says playwright Joe McDonough, cringing before the playful glares of the theater's design team.

        “. . . And now a herd of buffalo goes across the stage . . .” properties master Shannon Rae Lutz quotes from the script to him.

        Mr. McDonough defends himself. The technical team, he says, has been very good at solving impossible problems in past holiday shows The Frog Princess and Alice in Wonderland, which he also wrote with songwriter/collaborator David Kisor.

        “I offered some suggestions,” Mr. McDonough pleaded to his colleagues.

        “Sound and lights,” scoffs Mr. Mehring.

        “It was a starting point,” Mr. McDonough tried.

        “My favorite,” says writing partner Mr. Kisor, “is "maybe some choreographic moments.' ”

        “Maybe a song,” inserts Ms. Lutz.

        “It sounds like a song,” Mr. Kisor teases. “Let David write it.” @subhed:Moonlighting magician @body:

        For all the bantering, the truth is the company loves a good challenge, says costumer Reba Senske, moonlighting from her post of associate costume designer at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “How is the problem solved? Is it a piece of fabric? Is it sound and light? Is it dust and tumbleweeds?” she asks.

        It turns out, her colleagues laugh, it's finding a bunch of burlap in the basement and suggesting she do something with it.

        Ms. Senske's nimble mind and fingers transform the burlap, with the help of fabric and nine sets of steer horns, into a stampede.

        What is being used to create a lot of effects is warm bodies. “That asset we do have,” Mr. McDonough says. All of ETC's more than a dozen interns are involved in 80 Days, plus a dozen professional actors.

        Among featured players are local favorites Michael Bath, Sherman and Drew Fracher, Robert Rais, Beth Harris, William Schwarber and Spring Pillow. Leading the expedition as Phileas (as named in the book, not Phineas as we all know him from the film) Fogg is Tom Haffner.

        When it was time to think about the elephant, exactly one name came to mind: puppeteer Joe Kovacs.

        Mr. Kovacs came up with a design that needs six people to execute, including two puppeteers. That doesount the four additional actors who get on board during the course of the scene. It turns out Mr. Kovacs can sing, too, and his role was quickly expanded. @subhed:Off-stage choreography @body:

        On to the next challenge: Once the world of fanciful, oversize props are created on stage, where are they stored during a performance in a theater with no wing space?

        The choreography onstage is nothing compared to the choreography off-stage. Technical director Chad Engleman created a diagram of the theater's spaces. Props are piled up in the basement, the lobby, the vault immediately backstage, along the corridor leading to backstage offices, in the adjacent administration building, even in the alley outside.

        Rhonda the elephant lives in pieces in the administration building, her parts only coming together when she enters the theater from the lobby.

        “There was a time this summer when I was working on the script and I thought, "This is getting kind of big,' but (executive artistic director) Lynn (Meyers) said "keep going'. @subhed:Got to have balloon @body:

        The creative crew is loath to give away too many of the show's surprises, but Mr. McDonough is happy to share one piece of trivia. “The hot-air balloon isn't in the novel. Everybody identifies it from the movie, it's even on the cover of the paperback, so we knew we had to have it.”

        The question was how to do it.

        “We've been talking since summer,” says Mr. Mehring. “Could we rig the theater? Can we fly three people in? Structurally and financially the answer was no.”

        They finally arrived at a solution in late November.

        “As much as we joke,” Mr. McDonough says, “they never said "We can't do that.' ”

        Adds Mr. Kisor, “They've said, "You're crazy' but they do it anyway.”

        • What: Around the World in 80 Days.

        • When: 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 2. No performance Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Christmas Eve performance is 2 p.m.

        • Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.

        • Tickets: $25, $20 seniors, $12 children 12 and under. 421-3555.


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