PlayMakers Rep's production of Shipwrecked, Donald Margulies' canny tribute to the ancient art of yarn spinning, certainly stands as a smaller, more aesthetically economical form of theater than the company's recent works, including Nicholas Nickleby, Pericles and its 2008 production of Amadeus.
Such was clearly the goal of Margulies, who wrote that he wanted theaters performing Shipwrecked to "make no attempt to replicate onstage what television and movies do," but rather, "simply get back to the essence of telling a good story."
With that goal in mind, is the present production actually economical enough? The work's world premiere at South Coast Rep in 2007 and its New York debut in January 2009 boasted a cast of three, but the current company has eight people—including pianist Mark Lewis, whose live music and prepared piano sound effects on stage help to underpin the show.
By similar logic, that down-home farce Greater Tuna could potentially be played by a company of 20—its full complement of characters. But the show's impact is much greater when it's performed as written, by a cast of two—preferably its co-creators, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams.
It seems that guest director Tom Quaintance has tried to minimize the effect—and the presence—of that many extra performers as much as possible. In the playbill, they're referred to as members of an "ensemble," apart from the three "players" ostensibly assisting central character Louis de Rougemont in a public narration of his life's story. And they're kept sequestered, at least at the start, behind set designer Robin Vest's handsome, massive, stage-length set piece, which suggests a cross between a two-story arrangement of apothecary display cases and the Arc de Triomphe. From there, however, these players repeatedly emerge to facilitate a number of scenes when they're not generating most of the show's sound effects on ancient machines and devices and animating the strategically deployed shadow puppets, both of which contribute to this production's economy and charm.
History tells us that de Rougemont was pegged as one of the great humbugs of the 19th century. His serialized, fantastical accounts of disaster at sea, shipwreck on a South Pacific isle and subsequent decades among the Aborigines made him rich and famous. When scientific authorities and investigators debunked his tales, he lost everything.
Actor Scott Ripley's vivid, energetic portrayal makes for an engaging and sympathetic de Rougemont. Derrick Ledbetter delightfully animates the many moods of Bruno, a dog who befriends the would-be explorer. Dee Dee Batteast fully embodies de Rougemont's mother, before her robust portrayal of his alleged Aboriginal wife, Yamba. And Jimmy Kieffer adds to a list of notable supporting roles his work here as Jensen, captain of the ill-fated Wonder World—and a memorable cameo as Queen Victoria.
Though the group ably propels a ripping yarn of the old school through the chapters of its central character's life, we're still left with the sense of a story that fizzles a bit at the end, which one last, stage-wide special effect tries in vain to counteract, in a production that trusts its playwright's belief in the magic of story alone—but only up to a point.