At the beginning of Shipwrecked!, Greg Wood bounds onto the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio and greets the audience: “Hello,” he says, “and welcome to this temple of imagination.”
For the next ninety minutes, Wood and two co-stars prove just how accurate that statement is, as they use a boundless supply of theatrical imagination to turn a tiny stage into various exotic locales – from the bustling streets of 19th century London to the forsaken desert of Australia to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Shipwrecked! is a terrific show, but while it seems at first to be merely a cute trifle (with a winking, music hall spirit similar to the wildly popular The 39 Steps), it ends up taking a serious and satisfying turn that makes you question everything it has told you.
The full title of Donald Margulies’ play is Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself). Wood plays de Rougemont, a real-life voyager who left London as a teenager in the 1860s to take a job as a mate on a sailing ship. We see de Rougemont trolling for pearls in New Guinea, surviving a shipwreck, living alone (with only his dog for company) on a deserted island for over two years, meeting and marrying a native girl, then returning to England after decades away and becoming a celebrity. It’s a fantastic story… but is it just a story? Was de Rougemont full of bravado and boldness, or was he just full of blarney? Margulies (a Pulitzer Prize winner) doesn’t delve too deeply into de Rougemont’s psyche, but he does show how de Rougemont was affected by his detractors, and how much he strove to redeem himself.
Wood plays de Rougemont with an earnestness and urgency that makes even his most outlandish statements believable. (Did he really ride across the ocean on the back of a sea turtle? If you say so, Louis.) He’s aided by Bi Jean Ngo and David Bradley Johnson, who play dozens of roles: Ngo is Louis’ misunderstanding mother and a rascally sea captain, while Johnson plays everyone from a precocious Cockney lad to Queen Victoria. Best of all is Johnson’s turn as Louis’ loyal dog – he sits with his mouth agape, his eyes focused on some distant point, perfectly embodying every dumb but lovable dog you’ve ever had the pleasure to know. (Unfortunately, director Jesse Bernstein stages some of the dog sequences so close to the floor that they can be hard to see.)
Ngo and Johnson also carry all the makeshift props in Bernstein’s boisterous production, and they even provide the sound effects, rattling thunder sheets on either side of the stage during storm sequences. The wooden walls of Glen Sears’ set are filled with nautical motifs and hidden compartments, and Amanda Wolfe provides a wide array of costumes for all those colorful characters.
Shipwrecked! isn’t too deep, but while it may be a light entertainment, it’s smart, too. It’s a show for anyone who wants to take an adventure – or just pretend that they did.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) plays through November 1, 2015 in the Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 982-2787, or purchase them online.