Shipwrecked!—An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
Presented by New Haven Theater Company through
By Donald Margulies. Directed by Peter Chenot. Projection Design: Drew Gray. Stage Manager: Allyson Kaechele. Light Board Operator: Mary Tedford. Performed by Christian Shaboo (Louis de Rougemont), Mallory Pellegrino (Yamba, ensemble)
Jessw Gabbard (Captain Jensen, ensemble), Erich Greene (Bruno the dog, ensemble), Trevor Williams (Gunda, ensemble), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Bobo, ensemble), Margaret Mann (Mother, ensemble), Drew Gray (ensemble).
It’s tempting to say that Shipwrecked! is wildly unlike other plays by Donald Margulies. It’s set in Australia in the late 1800s, while his other work is contemporary American.
But in fact this faux-fantastical adventure play is very much in keeping with the themes of perception and reality which run through all Margulies work, from Dinner With Friends (the appearance of a solid relationship) to The Model Apartment (the appearance of comfort and security) to Two Days (appearance of an orderly civilization with acceptable boundaries). Margulies also digs culture and literature, and Shipwrecked!—for all its leaping about, for all its somersaults and aboriginal gesturing—is highly literary.
It’s a story told by an adventurer, full of bounding mains and swimming turtles, signifying—what? Louis de Rougemont has a story to tell, about how he ran away from home, ran afoul of scoundrels in the city, went to sea to collect pearls, found himself capsized and nearly dead, only to find a delightful new existence among sea creatures and tribal natives.
Margulies presents the play so that we take de Rougemont’s exploits seriously, until we (and he) can’t any longer. The story takes a downturn, submerging into reality. But it has a message of hope and endurance and change. It’s also constantly comical, in case that’s a concern. (Margulies plays aren’t always constantly comical, though they all have humor.)
The Long Wharf Theatre gave Shipwrecked! its East Coast premiere in 2007, directed by Evan Cabnet and starring accomplished character actor Michael Countryman. I saw that production, and don’t remember it as being nearly as sprightly and effervescent as what the New Haven Theater Company are doing with it in the back room of English Building Markets through May 10. Long Wharf (and many other theaters) performed Shipwrecked! with a cast of three—one man playing de Rougemont and the other two splitting up the dozens of other roles—but NHTC expands the ensemble to seven, befitting a troupe whose main strength is in its living, breathing company members.
That said, the design is better here, more elaborate than the merely serviceable sets and props used for recent NHTC shows such as Almost, Maine and Our Town and The Magician. There are projections of original artwork (by Drew Gray), old-school sound effects devices to conjure up noises from the wind to typewriters, and a collection of props which rivals the stock at the English Building antique shop which you have to pass through to get to the theater space.
The mostly young and entirely energetic cast is jumpy and inventive, clearly enjoying the opportunity to bring Margulies’ words to life. They behave like an improv troupe, always looking for new opportunities for funny accents or exaggerated postures. This unrelenting need to enliven and entertain start to get bothersome when all these scene-stealing small-part interlopers threaten to overwhelm Christian Shaboo in the lead role. Shaboo commands the stage pretty well, is well-spoken and compelling, but it would take a Richard Burton or an Orson Welles to beat back the incursion of seven mugging colleagues in the big scenes.
When de Rougemont’s fortunes take a dour turn near the end, issues of balance and tone are even more of a concern. There’s a long, crucial expositional bit, and a good chunk of that gets lost in the frenzy. You can easily follow what’s happening, but where the script makes a stylistic shift, this production doesn’t.
That’s a regular problem with large-cast ensemble shows that start boisterously and comically and then get real. Shipwrecked! itself is about a a grand adventure that shifts gears and gets emotional in unexpected ways. New Haven Theater Company surfs deliriously for a while, then has a little trouble making it to shore. But they nonetheless do Louis de Rougemont’s story proud, and add a strong burst of merriment and energy to Margulies’ verbose adventure tale.