With the cast, helmer and designers of its 2007 South Coast Rep premiere still aboard, Donald Margulies’ “Shipwrecked!” offers Geffen Playhouse audiences more of just about everything — more lights, more spectacle, more audacity — at no sacrifice of the improvisatory, two-planks-and-a-passion quality marking this exuberant tall tale as a product for the stage and no other medium. If anything on the boards today could prompt a young viewer to aver, “I not only want to see more theater, I want to make it,” this is the one.
Inspired by rather than adapting the memoirs of the real-life titular 19th century fabulist, Margulies constructs a life-and-death argument disguised as an innocuous platform entertainment.
For a full hour, Gregory Itzin’s magisterial, silver-tongued orator holds us spellbound reenacting his 30-year odyssey: He’s marooned on a Coral Sea island; lives in accommodation with an aborigine chief (Michael Daniel Cassady) and comely daughter Yamba (Melody Butiu); is adopted by the tribe as a sort of sea god (“their words, not mine,” Louis modestly clarifies); and is finally rescued and returns to London with a triumphant bestseller, even enjoying an audience with the queen (Cassady again).
Helmer Bart DeLorenzo expertly marshals a range of theatrical devices to complement Louis’ saga. Keith Mitchell’s musty, sepia-toned backstage seems a Victorian toy theater of magical closets and prop trunks, glowing within Rand Ryan’s ravishing lighting plot. A giant backcloth is frontlit for Ryan’s evocative sea storm effects and backlit to reveal Christine Marie’s amusing array of Bunraku shadow puppets.
This almost impossibly lovely first hour projects the Geffen audience into the same state of awe experienced by contemporary tabloid readers of de Rougemont’s memoirs. But then the other shoe drops.
Scientists and investigative reporters find inconsistencies and then giant holes in the narrative. A librarian reports someone of de Rougemont’s description having devoured South Pacific and Australian Outback tomes following an abortive three-year sea voyage. A Viennese alienist diagnoses delusions of grandeur. (Butiu and Cassady inhabit all these roles with protean skill.)
Itzin piteously declines into physical and mental despair as the public drops, nay, reviles the mountebank. Margulies’ rewritten text underscores the parallels to modern celebrity and its cannibals, greedily feeding on the exploits of the notorious, appetite only increasing when those exploits are exposed as a sham.
Yet our identification with our hero never wavers, not least because of the skullduggery by which Itzin has insinuated his way into our hearts. We cheer as he exclaims, “What does a man leave behind but his name and the stories he told? All else is dust,” redeeming both in a stunning final coup.
A cadre of set-changing stagehands diminishes the sense of Butiu and Cassady as sole production movers and shakers. And as exciting as Steven Cahill’s music and effects are, they render somewhat superfluous Cassady’s one-man band of instruments in his pockets or his blowing into a microphone to simulate a storm.
Still, DeLorenzo incorporates plenty of simple delights, whether it be Butiu’s ecstatic happy-feet dance whenever Louis pleases Yamba, or Cassady staring blankly into space, tongue out, in his exquisite impersonation of Louis’ canine companion Bruno.
And the never-offstage Itzin is himself a marvel of stagecraft, his ease never wavering despite the staggering amount of dialogue and physical business he’s been assigned. His Louis — egotist but never blowhard; a little man with the familiar desire to be Big — is winning, touching, unmissable.