The Playhouse is wrapping up its 53rd season with Donald Margulies’s 2007 script, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). Concluding Blake Robison’s first season as artistic director, the show continues his promise to offer family-friendly plays designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of Playhouse theatergoers, spanning from kids to grandparents. Shipwrecked tells the tale of a life of adventure, tracking from Louis de Rougemont’s sheltered boyhood in Victorian London to a long, eventful sea voyage, shipwreck near Australia, lonely exile on a deserted island, love among the natives, a return to London, media notoriety and more. It owes a debt to the many tales read to young Louis (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) by his protective mother (one of many roles handled by Mandi Masden): Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey and The Arabian Nights.
Cornell, who is a mature actor, narrates Louis’s story and portrays his youthful eagerness and earnest yearning for adventure.
He follows the path to adventure learned from the books his mother read to him, and the play’s actors shape and shift from one scene to the next. Masden becomes the salty sea captain who recruits Louis for a voyage to the Coral Sea, north of Australia. She is also his love interest, Yamba, a spirited aborigine who learns flawless English in the space of a scene.
Prize-winning playwright Margulies, best known for his dramatic scripts (several staged locally by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, including Time Stands Still, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories and Dinner With Friends), describes his intentions with Shipwrecked as “deliberately hyperbolic” and “determinedly low-tech.” He also notes that it’s “about the very nature of artifice and story-telling.” The play is an intriguing step beyond Margulies’s typically naturalistic work, and his notes include a warning to “avoid cuteness … and sentimentality at all cost.” Guest director Brendon Fox has achieved that, but his production has a contemplative quality that I suspect means that young children (and some adults) will not find Shipwrecked quite as hilarious as some other shows in this category.
That’s not to say that this production lacks moments of high humor, especially thanks to the mercurial Justin Adams, the third cast member who plays Bruno, a faithful dog, with animation and a deliriously eager presence (and a constantly panting tongue). Adams also becomes a fisherman attacked by an octopus (he handles both roles), the inarticulate father of Louis’s aboriginal love interest and the entire population of a tribe that takes Louis in. He and Masden are busy throughout this story, making quick costume changes from racks they roll on and off the stage as they morph from Londoners or a greedy ship’s captain into pearl divers, aborigines, journalists and scientists. They adapt Louis’s bed into a ship, a trunk into a sea turtle and a sheet into the ocean itself. They make sound effects using items from a table in plain sight as well as a wind-and-thunder machine and a “creaker” that simulates the sound of ropes and masts on a wooden ship. It’s great fun to watch all this being created from bits and pieces left laying around a small Victorian theater.
Margulies’s script is a tribute to the power of storytelling, in particular to the telling of tall tales we are asked to believe despite any wildly unlikely events. The show’s final 20 minutes turns an unexpected corner that will surprise some and might not be grasped by children, as it requires a depth of understanding about suspending disbelief. The show wraps up with a lovely twist, but it’s definitely more wistful and thoughtful than a barrel of belly laughs.
SHIPWRECKED! presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, is onstage through June 16.