“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment” earns its exclamation mark through the wildly imaginative writing of Donald Margulies and, in its current production by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, a charming, energetic performance by Bruce Cromer as its central character, British adventurer and raconteur Louis de Rougemont. Cromer has to play de Rougemont as wide-eyed boy, a young man inclined to handstands and cartwheels, a world traveler who gets into a variety of dangerous predicaments, a mature adult who becomes a literary sensation, and a wizened old man. And rarely, in this play, does he stop talking for long. You’ll get exhausted just watching him, but he handles it all very smoothly.
The 2007 play, whose full name is “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself),” features a four-person cast and is being produced, with direction by Doug West, outdoors at the amphitheater at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown. Aurea Tomeski plays de Rougemont’s wife Yamba — an Aboriginal Australian who learns English very quickly after she meets him — as well as his saintly mother, and other roles. Jabari Carter makes his biggest impression as de Rougemont’s adorable and fiercely loyal dog Bruno, though he plays many other roles as well. The fourth actor, Paul Henry, also plays a variety of roles as well as being the play’s primary “Foley artist” — the person creating sound effects, done in old-fashioned radio-play style, onstage (Tomeski and Carter do some of the Foley work, as well). Stagehands help with some of the visual effects — attacking actors with the tentacles of a giant octopus, for instance.
There were some sound problems the night I attended: static on the sound system that wouldn’t go away. One hopes this doesn’t recur. But it was just a minor annoyance — I could still make out all the words. And “Shipwrecked!” offered both a rollicking good time and, due to an unexpected left turn Margulies takes in the play’s chapter (de Rougement calls each section of the play a “chapter,” not an “act”), some deeper meaning having to do with what de Rougement’s wild stories can tell us about things like truth, art and fantasy.
The play begins in England, in the 1860s, when de Rougemont is a sickly, pampered child. “I long to see the things that are written about in books,” he says, moments after telling us what kind of books he is talking about: “Adventure stories. Fantastic tales. The great, timeless tomes: ‘Arabian Nights,’ ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Wondrous journeys, each and every one of them.”
As soon as he is old enough, and healthy enough, he sets off to find some adventures of his own. What results isn’t “The Odyssey” but — in de Rougement’s floridly embellished re-telling, at least — it’s Odyssean, and that is no small accomplishment.
After leaving home at 16, carrying little more than a thick copy of the works of William Shakespeare given to him by his mother (“All you will need to know about life is between its covers,” she tells him), de Rougement travels to London, but is quickly robbed and left penniless. He finds employment, though, on a pearling expedition to the Coral Sea, off Australia.
You can probably guess what happens next from the play’s title. Bad weather destroys the ship; only de Rougemont and Bruno survive. They manage to get to an island, and live by themselves for years before encountering Yamba, along with her brother and father, who also become marooned on the small island. Together, they build a seaworthy boat from the remnants of their two ruined boats and make it to Yamba’s tribe, where de Rougemont’s is welcomed like a hero. He marries Yamba and they start a family of their own.
By the time their children are grown, though, de Rougemont yearns to see his own homeland again, and so he sets off, with more adventures ensuing. Back in London, it turns out adventure sagas like his are a hot commodity in the magazine business, and a serialized account — titled, you guessed it, “Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself)” — becomes a hit, making de Rougement so famous he is honored with a wax statue at Madame Tussauds, and meets Queen Victoria.
All this sets up the surprise-filled ending, in which Margulies’ larger themes come to the forefront and wrap everything up in a satisfying way.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s annual outdoor production is usually a highlight of the New Jersey summer theater season. This one maintains the tradition, though it is less of a “production” than some previous offerings — the set and the costumes are pretty minimal.
But that is in keeping with Margulies’ vision. He writes in the play’s introductory notes:
The special effects should be clever, but determinedly low-tech; I want audiences to see the mechanics of theater, whether it’s a puppeteer in plain sight, or an undisguised wire cable. The costuming should seem as if children raided their parents’ closets for a game of dress-up.
He also writes that directors should resist the urge to add pop-culture references and cheap jokes. “Shipwrecked! is a timeless tale and should be presented as such,” he concludes.
A timeless tale: That’s quite a thing go aim for. But “Shipwrecked!” does accomplish this, in its own eccentric, low-tech way.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself)” outdoors, at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown, through July 30. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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