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“Shipwrecked” Makes Waves ... Of Imagination

by Allan Appel | May 1, 2014 1:07 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

Allan Appel Photo Six actors play 60 roles changing from devoted mother to sea captain to loyal dog, to sea turtle—and let’s not forget Queen Victoria . There’s even a gaggle of nosy reporters.

When it’s time for the storm to rage, one of the actors in full view of the audience walks over to crank the burlap cloth over a wooden frame.

Presto: loud ominous wind. And you believe it, wholeheartedly

By showing, not concealing, all the theater’s tricks, the magic is enhanced, not reduced.

That’s the whole point of the charming and engrossing Shipwrecked, The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).

Local Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies‘s 2008 serious farce for kids of all ages is the latest offering of the New Haven Theater Company.

The production will have eight performances May 1-3 and 8-10, with shows Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. All are at the English Market Building, which the director, Peter Chenot, and company have arranged into a cozy semi-circle of seats.

Margulies’s yarn is told by Louis himself, complete with shipwreck on a Coral Sea island, octopus attack, marriage to Aboriginal island denizen with whom he has children named Gladys and Blanche, and don’t forget the rides on the friendly giant sea turtles.

If Louis is an unreliable narrator or a conman, that’s up to you to decide. There’s no rush, and the question, unanswered until the end, is not the point.

What’s not subject for discussion is how with minimal props—all contained within two chests on stage and with wonderful sound effects ply economically achieved before your eyes— so many hair-raising adventures can be imagined, like a 19th century serialized story or a radio play unfolding before you..

For example, click on the play arrow to see how six actors and a blue sheet make a credible and scary storm, a drowning, and a miraculous rescue.

One of the actors, Margaret Mann, conveyed Margulies’s advice to the company: “Have fun, have a great time.”

Margulies has written that he wants the play to make the case for the power of imagination unleashed. By the evidence of a rehearsal this week in the run-up to the opening on Thursday, Chenot and company area achieving exactly that with the minimal means the play’s directions call for.

And having a lot of fun in the process.

“We’re not hiding any of the theatricality,” Chenot said as he demonstrated the wave drum (in the video).

That’s a tambourine-sized container with ball bearings that when gently shaken makes a rumble that transports you to land’s end.

There young Louis, played by Christian Shaboo, leaves home to seek fame and adventure. In the process he meets the obsessed Captain Jensen, played by Jesse Gabbard.

If the obsessive captain echoes Melville’s Ahab a bit, and the desperate times on the Aboriginal island after shipwreck bear a likeness to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, that’s because the play is unabashedly quoting the cliches of adolescent adventure fiction.

Margulies’s aim is to make a dramatic crie de coeur for increasing the supply of imagination, and decreasing the gadgetry both on our stages and screens, and in our lives.

When Erich Greene, as Louis’s loyal dog Bruno, barks that the oceanic whirlpool is about to suck them down to the depths, it’s effective; he doesn’t need a costume, or a tail to wag.

Louis will also fall in love with innocent island girl Yama, who helps to rescue him. The tinkling of the key tree (pictured) will mark their romance—never mind that Louis later describes love as “seasickness, without the vomiting.”

That bit of dialogue is perhaps for the adult kids in the audience.

Shaboo, a tri-athelete with an upcoming contest in August, says that for him the play is more of an aerobic workout than even long-distance running. For him the role is also his biggest challenge yet in terms of the amount of time he spends on the stage spouting words—Louis and the characters are not long-winded, there’s just a lot going on, a whole lifetime, that must be described.

Click here for Christopher Isherwood’s 2009 New York Times review of the New York City production, in which he seems to be faulting Margulies for not exploring the issues the play raises or providing some psychological clues as to why Louis’s story turns, by play’s end, from fable to fabrication.

But does it?

You’ll have to wait to see how Louis rides one of those crusty sea turtles. It all rides, as it were, on his technique for signalling the turtle to turn left or right.

Other actors in the show not previously mentioned include Mallory Pellegrino, Trevor Williams, and Katelyn Marshall. Ally Kaechele is the stage manager and Mary Tedford does the lights. Drew Gray is providing inventive behind-the-screen projections to augment the sights and the sounds.

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