A cracking good yarn, entertainingly recounted, makes a smashing start to the fall theater season. Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told by Himself) by playwright Donald Margulies, charmingly revives the old-school art of storytelling in a delightful, low-tech comedy at Everyman Theatre that will captivate both Luddites and whippersnappers weaned on texting and Xbox games.
Directed with music hall panache by Derek Goldman, Shipwrecked! eschews computerized soundscapes and other gizmology in favor of such old-timey flourishes as black and white, magic lantern-style projections on a plain cloth backdrop and radio theatre-type sound effects—bubble wrap replicates a crackling fire, sheets of metal are banged to simulate raging monsoons, and tropical breezes are evoked by gently rattling sets of keys—as well as perhaps the most ancient special effect of all, a well-told tale. The playfulness and toying with perspective and props (the set by Daniel Ettinger reminds you of a neglected curiosity shop) is reminiscent of the directing style of Mary Zimmerman.
Rather than playing a hymn to yesteryear, Mr. Margulies employs the genre of the fabulist memoir as a meditation on the nature of storytelling. Does a tale have to be true to be worthy? Does using your imagination voluptuously make you an artist or a mere fabricator?
The playwright does not hand-feed you the answers, preferring to remain somewhat mysterious and discreet on the ethical and psychological make-up of Louis De Rougemont (Bruce R. Nelson, employing a rich oratorical speaking style to plummy effect), a Victorian-era adventurer whose Robinson Crusoe-like globetrotting enchanted readers and live audiences alike until that pesky interloper—the truth—began to unravel his colorful anecdotes.
And what stories they are. The play begins in Louis’ blue bedroom, as the sickly child is transported to faraway worlds via the books read by his mother (Tuyet Thi Pham, playing a variety of roles as Player #1). His head filled with fantasy, Louis leaves home at 16 to see the world and seek adventure.
In London, he meets a rum-loving sea captain (Miss Pham, belting out sea chanteys with boozy aplomb), who encourages him to join a ship bound for the South Seas in search of rare pearls. Once there, Louis encounters a fearsome octopus, a whirling storm that reduces the ship to matchsticks and plops him onto a remote island. Fear not, Louis is not completely alone—his Man Friday is of the four-legged variety, a dog named Bruno, played with scruffy splendor by Clinton Brandhagen, who is so wriggly and persistently terrier-like in the role you have to restrain yourself from running up onstage and scratching him behind the ears.
Louis and Bruno are eventually rescued by an aboriginal family whom they save from peril and venture to their native island. The natives are portrayed by a bank of puppets crafted by the Baltimore-based company Nana Projects and they are a tongue-in-cheek nod to “savage” stereotypes. Naturally, Louis is viewed as a god (as is Bruno, who is quite pleased to sport a palm leaf crown) and takes as his wife the lovely island maiden Yumba (Miss Pham).
However, homesickness eats away at Louis, and he makes his way to Australia and back to London, where he achieves fame and fortune relating his South Seas adventures. With the heights of fame comes the inevitable teardown, as anthropologists and geographers begin to chip away at Louis’ narrative until all that is left is an old man begging passersby to let him tell a great story.
Mr. Nelson plays the younger Louis with showman flourish—he even executes numerous cartwheels and somersaults—embellishing the more fantastic aspects of the tale with great delicacy and humor. He is equally effective portraying Louis’ twilight years, when his natural propensity for embellishment is viewed as delusions of grandeur.
Shipwrecked! never judges Louis too harshly. After all, how hard can you come down on a man who spins stories so entrancing it becomes almost immaterial whether or not they contain a whit of truth?
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
By Donald Margulies
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Everyman Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Shipwrecked! runs thru Oct 24, 2010 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201.
Running time: Approximately 95 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: 410-752-2208 or www.everymantheatre.org
Very Highly Recommended