Re-creating the pleasures of 19th century platform entertainment with a tart contemporary twist, Donald Margulies’ South Coast Rep-commissioned “Shipwrecked!” offers a self-promoting fabulist a forum to inform and persuade, and it delights in both respects. Small cast plus big scope makes it a natural for budget-conscious regional theaters (it’ll sail to Connecticut’s Long Wharf next spring in a wholly new production), while school groups with less strained resources could expand the ensemble for a different but equally valid “total theater” experience.
Play’s long, rolling official title, redolent of the carnival midway, aptly introduces the huckstering Louis de Rougemont (Gregory Itzin), whose youthful voyage (he relishes describing) was cut short by a typhoon that left him marooned on a Coral Sea island, later to make contact with Australian aborigines with whom he found an unlikely home. Three decades on, he has returned to share his saga. Are we ready to be astonished?
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With beard and hair appropriately evoking both Dickens (the Victorian era’s foremost live entertainer) and Don Quixote, our hero gleefully describes how he observed flying wombats, rode sea turtles and executed gymnastics to tame the savages, lacing his narrative with grandiose chapter titles and Shakespearean asides. Since no one does classy braggadocio better than Gregory Itzin, this is a performance of which P.T. Barnum would be proud.
However, what de Rougemont is selling isn’t patent medicine, and he doesn’t treat us as suckers born every minute.
No sooner did he return to his native England’s acclaim, he tells us, than skeptical scientists and journalists began finding the devil in his details, leaving his entire adventure discredited as a hoax. And that’s really why he’s here. Louis’ (and Itzin’s) fervent desire to justify his life’s purpose provide the emotional throughline that transforms a ripping good yarn into a touching character study and a real play.
Helmer Bart DeLorenzo cannily employs technology — a wind machine, pre-recorded sound, flying effects, shadow puppets projected onto a giant backcloth — to suggest de Rougemont’s landing as if via time machine to press his defense using whatever theatricality is at hand. And this Louis is particularly lucky in his supporting Players, whose protean labors to keep props and play moving still leave time for memorably etched characterizations.
Melody Butiu invests Louis’ aboriginal sweetheart Yamba with a rare glow, and Michael Daniel Cassady’s Bruno, Louis’ canine companion after the wreck, could be the most fully realized stage pup you’ll ever see, his eventual loss felt as keenly as that of Wilson, the volleyball, in “Cast Away.” (Both thesps could use some dialect work, though, as their English and Australian accents are as muddy as their physical business is sharp.)
Successful bare-bones reading at South Coast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in May raised fears that a fuller staging might diminish the play’s impact, but this production is so creatively rendered that the stage remains, as Louis hopes early on, “a temple of the imagination.” Rand Ryan’s lighting, in particular, subtly highlights each sequence’s emotional core without violating the illusion of unadorned storytelling.
The kicker in the play is that, once exposed, the “true” de Rougemont is but a shell of his earlier self and infinitely less interesting. They say when the fabulous title monster of Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” turned into handsome but wooden Jean Marais, Greta Garbo exclaimed, at a screening, “Give me back my Beast!” In Itzin’s moving portrayal, no one can watch our hero shrivel in shame without demanding the return of the magical Louis — and the playwright obliges, in a thrilling oceanic coda.
Who craves more normalcy than he already gets in everyday life? Our de Rougemonts (and James Freys and Clifford Irvings, for that matter) allow us to dwell for a while in a world we’d never otherwise visit — “dabbing a little spot of color on the drab canvas of life,” as Louis puts it — and Margulies makes a convincing case that those who self-righteously tear down our tall-tale tellers do us no favors.