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.
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.
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!
[Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut street] October 6-November 1, 2015; walnutstreettheatre.org.