Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tall Tales

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Starring Michael Countryman, Jeremy Bobb, Donnetta Lavinia Grays

Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street
Performances from January 27 to March 7, 2009

Michael Countryman in Shipwrecked!
(photo: James Leynse)
The full title of Donald Margulies’ new play is a mouthful: Shipwrecked! An Entertainment–The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). But it fits perfectly, since words–lots of them–are all his hero has, and he makes the most of them.

Shipwrecked! is based on the memoirs of Louis de Rougemont, a Brit who—if he’s to be believed—left home as a teenager on a ship headed for Australia’s pearl fishing areas, was caught in a terrible storm, tossed about, shipwrecked, left stranded on a deserted island for years with his faithful dog Bruno, rescued lost Aboriginals, married and began a family with one of them, and finally returned home to unparalleled fame in London because of his astonishing story: that is, until he fell out of favor when he started being called a liar.

It’s a fascinating story, whether or not it’s true, and Margulies wittily takes this account at face value, letting Rougemont tell his tale unencumbered. Margulies even adroitly transforms his hero from a Prospero-like magician (that he quotes two Shakespearean speeches, including a pivotal Tempest soliloquy, is surely not coincidental) bringing these fantastical tales to life into a sympathetically broken old man who, in the play’s last, powerful image rides a fake sea turtle, re-living past glories—and righting past wrongs.

In Primary Stages’ excellent production that’s snappily directed by Lisa Peterson, Michael Countryman valiantly plays our tour guide. His sparkling Rougemont is a man whose farfetched adventures feature him as a small mama’s boy, an excitable young man, a lonely adult castaway and a confused, middle-aged outsider–all of which he performs exemplarily.

Countryman receives superlative support from Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, doing yeoman’s work in a variety of roles, especially Bobb, whose Bruno is a brilliantly conceived (and endlessly charming) canine. These two actors also help out with the many sound effects and makeshift visuals—and even several stagehands get into the act.

Margulies’ literate script addresses the happy notion that theater at its most entertaining need not be weighed down by gimmicky sets and other onstage distractions. It’s not a major work by any stretch from the formidable author of Sight Unseen and Dinner with Friends, but Shipwrecked! shows that Donald Margulies is still a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

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