All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Greg Wood practically bounds on stage, the enthusiasm of his “Shipwrecked!” character, Louis de Rougemont, being so great, he can barely wait to tell his stories about 30 years of being marooned in the South Seas of Australia to the attentive audience waiting to hear his amazing adventures, the relation of which he calls an “entertainment.”
His call is accurate. “Shipwrecked!” is a delight of a theater piece on several levels, all of which are maximized by Wood’s spellbinding performance, Jesse Bernstein’s fast-paced and witty direction, Glen Sears’s efficiently evocative treasure trove of a set, and Kate Coots’s resourceful and clever prop department at Walnut Street Theatre. Wood is well-abetted in his fantastic storytelling by Bi Jean Ngo and David Bradley Johnson, the latter being particularly loveable and expressive as de Rougemont’s dog, Bruno.
Donald Margulies, generally a playwright of serious intent, crafted “Shipwrecked!” from the serialized account of de Rougemont’s life that caused two kinds of stirs in the late 18th century. The first came with the increasingly popular installments of de Rougemont’s tale, as published with Victorian flair in London’s Wide World Magazine, which couldn’t print enough copies to satisfy Britain’s taste for de Rougemont’s exploits including him charming Aborigines into accepting him as one of their own and riding giant sea turtles by poking their eyes with his toe to steer left or right. The second came when members of Britain’s Royal Geographic Society debunked just about all of de Rougemont’s assertions and left the poor adventurer to spend his later life defending his accounts and even proving his mastery of the amphibian by riding a turtle for an exhibition.
The joy of Bernstein’s production, and Wood’s account is how willingly and excitedly we go along with de Rougemont’s story. Everything Wood says mesmerizes and fills us with such wonder, we never doubt a scintilla of his report, no matter how far-fetched or illogical. We can see how Wide World’s readership could be enchanted by de Rougemont’s tale. Its incredibility is its lure and its charm. We hate that most of it is assuredly false. We prefer the fantasy and the art with which it’s concocted. We share the adventurer’s resentment when scientists challenge his daring feats and newspaper folk describe a drab, domestic life in Brisbane as his actual lot.
All of that is to Wood’s credit. His de Rougemont is so exuberant in his narration and so dashing a hero, we long to believe him and never have the chance, let along the time, to consider rolling our eyes or taking our feet off the floor lest our shoes get fouled from the crap he’s peddling.
As often happens, we love being fooled. Especially since de Rougemont’s inventions are so harmless and in keeping with what de Rougemont and Margulies promise us from the outset, so entertaining. In addition to having no time for doubt, we feel genuine disappointment and extend earnest empathy when de Rougemont is discredited and left to beg people to believe him. Our heart sinks when one of Johnson’s characters, now a man, scowls at de Rougemont with bitter contempt while displaying an autographed photo he prized so much as a boy.
Luckily, the sadder, more punitive points of “Shipwrecked!” are kept to a minimum and are couched in a comic mode. Margulies has shown his mastery in keeping “Shipwrecked” vibrant and engaging so that the lasting effect is your delight in hearing de Rougemont’s tale at all. Bernstein and company amplify that vibrancy. The director’s “Shipwrecked!” practically leaps off the stage, grabs you by the throat, and engages you thoroughly.
Even while making characters into cartoons, as Ngo does so skillfully, the cast inveigles you to buy into their adventure and see the seriousness of de Rougemont’s situation through their light comic telling of it. Slight through “Shipwrecked!” may be, Wood, Ngo, Johnson, and Bernstein have conspired to make Margulies’s play into great theater. They, and Bernstein in particular, realized the show for what it is, a marvelous flapdoodle, and eked every ounce of potential to make it exhilarating. I always say productions are more important than scripts, and with this production, the Walnut reinforces its reputation for mounting plays entertainingly and for letting fun reign as part of a season’s fare. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is in the wings. Drama tomorrow. Comedy tonight!
Wood begins this time as de Rougemont conversationally, like a lecturer warming up. He can even do some ad libbing, such as gently chiding latecomers as they make their way to their seats. Living in a time when scientific discovery was rife, sea voyages were a conduit to adventure, and Charles Dickens set the tone for how a story should unfold, de Rougement, who is actually born Henri Louis Grin, de Rougemont presents himself as a sickly, overattended child who longs to leave his cozy London home and see where fortune takes him. We recoil as young Louis is robbed of the savings his mother gave him when he departed on his journey. Gloom disappears quickly as Louis meets a sea captain, played with delightfully stereotypical shiver-me-timbers bluster by Ngo, and goes off with him to the South Seas to harvest the pearls so abundant in the coral reefs. Another shipmate is the captain’s dog, Bruno, who takes a mutually instant liking to Louis and remains his companion for many of his escapades.
Johnson is remarkably varied and entertaining in portraying the collected moods, reactions, and judgments of Bruno. Constantly keeping his eyes intent, as if Brunos sense unreachable food in his proximity, and making his mouth into a curious but plausible canine “o,” Johnson conveys all of the loyalty, love, and enthusiasm of an alert puppy while also being about to show Bruno’s displeasure when necessary. In one wonderful scene in which Louis and Bruno are ecstatic about finding each other one of two dozen mishaps, Louis greets his pet with a great rub behind the ears, and Johnson’s Bruno responds by excitedly stamping his right front leg and eventually rolling on his back to be petted on his tummy, just as any dog would do. It’s surehanded use of mime and comic device that sets Bernstein’s “Shipwrecked” above the welter of regional “39 Steps” and other genre spoofs that have lost the knack for blending comic shtick with compelling storytelling. Bernstein has found the pacing and formula to have his fun and let de Rougemont enthrall. Wood, as manager of all that happens during performance, beautifully maintains that fine line between adventure story and farce. Ngo and Johnson also know their business. So “Shipwrecked” can be creatively silly while piquing your yen to learn what happens next. Bernstein’s deft juggling, and frequently simultaneous mixture, of the substantial with the ridiculous is a great model for other directors who aim for comedy and engagement at the same time.
Bernstein’s “Shipwrecked!” being a wonderful example of theater, takes great advantage of the various oaken chests and sea paraphernalia with which Glen Sears has made the set functional and fascinating. Kate Coots’s prop department outdid itself in finding items that serve a purpose while being comic. Bi Jean Ngo embedded in a turtle shell is priceless, as good as Bernstein’s gambit of having Ngo move her patch from eye to the other when she plays the sea captain. Everything about this “Shipwrecked!” smacks of cleverness and savvy about putting on this kind of madcap yet gripping performance. I especially enjoyed the stick figure with details of African sculpture that serves as the Aborigine baby.
Greg Wood keeps a twinkle in his eye every minute he plays Louis de Rougemont. That twinkle is something a wink at the unlikely ways de Rougemont is mastering his fate. Other times it’s a jaundiced leer in the face of danger. Still other times, it combines confidence with concern as de Rougemont battles a raging sea storm or has to save his and Bruno’s lives when faced with a tribe of skeptical Aborigines.
David Bradley Johnson and Bi Jean Ngo are called on to play a panoply of characters who can be funny and sweet, like de Rougemont’s aged mother who stares at him upon his return home after 30 years and looks as if she longs to embrace but instead asks him tetchily, “Where’ve you been?” or Johnson’s extraordinary Bruno.
The skill of this production is so great, I obviously can’t stop talking it about it or praising it. From pacing to comic timing, from creating suspense to implementing panic, from being cartoonish to sustaining authenticity, this “Shipwrecked!” is the real gold from which happily entertaining theater is made. Its competence doesn’t even allow for self-consciousness or self-congratulation. It’s a perfect presentation piece that keeps you interested, makes you laugh, provides sentimental moments, such as the departure of de Rougemont from his Aborgine wife — twice! — and makes you care about the central characters.
Though not self-conscious, the makings of theater are everywhere. The chests that serve so well on a nautical set hold much of what Wood and company need to tell de Rougemont stories. Sound effects for storms, fires, and floods are managed by time-honored theater devices like corrugated metal sheets, ratchets, and pitchers sloshing liquid from one container to another seen right on stage and used right before your eyes. The theater is showing you its techniques and artificialities, yet all plays as real.
Glen Sears has thought of everything in designing his utilitarian but provocative set. The audience lives Zachary Beattie Brown’s sound design. Amanda Wolff joins the wit parade with her clever yet authentic costumes. I loved the layer she gives de Rougemont that let his go to stranded sailor to London gentleman by the donning or doffing of a jacket or vest. Wolff also has the good time with the hilarious headdresses worn by the Aborigines, a creation that looks something like a shriners’ cap made from kindling. Even Bruno’s red collar seems inspired. Shon Causer’s lighting flings us into darkness, takes us through storms, and offer brilliant sunlight on the islands where de Rougemont is stranded.
“Shipwrecked!” goes to the heart of storytelling. It doesn’t matter whether a tale is true or false as long as it engages and even thrills. Render unto history what is factual and to the stage what is entertaining, real or not. That includes theatrical renditions of history. Louis de Rougemont, or Henri Louis Grin, may have bamboozled the public but it was a willing public. His only fault is not owning up to his charlatanry when caught and as faults go, that’s a bagatelle. Meanwhile, he provided vicarious adventure and fun, like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, who may have had the goodness to call their stories fiction from the start.
Fun is welcome anywhere. Smart fun is a hallmark of adroit theater. The Walnut’s “Shipwrecked” is smart fun that knows how to make a trifle into a banquet. Donald Margulies, Jesse Bernstein, and all concerned should be proud. And thanked!
“Shipwrecked!” runs through Sunday, November 1, at the Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or by visiting http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org.