by Mark E. Leib
Review rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself), runs through March 2 at New Stage Theatre, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun., 11650 131st St. N., Largo, 813-817-2585, Tickets are $25.88. newstagelargo.org.
In an interview several years ago, Arthur Miller made the remark that theater is better than cinema in communicating quick changes of location. This may at first appear counter-intuitive; but as you watch Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked, you quickly realize that Miller was right.
When adventurer Louis de Rougemont tells us that he’s in England, we accept it; and moments later, when he says he’s on a ship headed for the Coral Sea, we instantly believe that as well. Throughout the play’s two acts, all that’s necessary is a word or so to place Rougemont in a whirlpool, on a desert island, in the Australian outback, or in Buckingham Palace with Queen Victoria. And the only props that he needs with which to transport us through his story are a ladder, a footlocker, a broad white sheet, and a sharply raked platform. Even the cartoonish projections on that sheet aren’t really necessary. If Rougemont insists that his ship is being attacked by a giant octopus, well, why not? He seems anxious, there’s lots of turbulence on stage, and right on schedule our imagination provides the octopus as well as its hideous tentacles. One good actor, one normally conscious audience, and the possibilities are endless.
Well, New Stage’s production of Shipwrecked has that good actor — in fact, four fine actors — and we’re easily guided around the world in these capable hands. But although Gi Young Sung, Alex Perez and Colleen Cherry are important in making the adventure feel real, it’s Chris Jackson as Rougemont who dominates Shipwrecked! and most claims our attention.
Jackson’s Rougemont (based on a real personage) is a dashing, daring explorer with a roller-coaster emotional life and a charming brashness that’s only a few steps beyond naïveté. Alternately narrating and acting out his story, he slips from callow wonder to mortal terror, from grateful love to harsh indignation as if there were no limits to his emotional range. Deftly directed by James Rayfield (who excels also in creating the exotic backdrop of Rougemont’s story out of the least promising materials), Jackson demonstrates abundantly that he’s the most talented young actor on Tampa Bay area stages, the one to watch as he ages and becomes available to the most challenging roles. This is a bravura performance, engaging and complex.
And yet, and yet ... There’s also something less than satisfying about Shipwrecked!, brilliant acting or not. Maybe it’s the time we live in; maybe in the age of space travel, the Internet, computer-assisted graphics and the National Geographic channel, it’s just hard to get excited about someone’s 19th century South Seas excursion. So Rougemont passes the time when he’s marooned by riding on sea turtles. In 1898 this must have been amazing; in 2014 it comes off as small beer. Then he meets a few aborigines, and falls in love with one of them. In 1898 this must have been shocking; in 2014 it’s merely charming.
Again and again, Rougemont tells us of wonders that don’t seem so wonderful in the age of the Hubble Telescope, and the play only really gets interesting once its hero is back in Olde England and experts begin to question his veracity. Now there’s something for the audience to think about: Have we been lied to for the last hour? Unfortunately, this section comes late in the evening, too late to make us forget the ho-hum feeling we’ve been struggling with before it. (On the other hand, I think children would be thrilled by the whole play.) And I have to admit it: movies like Pirates of the Caribbean have probably out-imagined even the most fanciful audience member; next to them, Shipwrecked! feels a little ... rudimentary.
Still I want to remember favorite moments (all thoughtfully lighted by Keith Arsenault): Perez as Rougemont’s faithful dog Bruno, getting jealous when his master falls in love with aborigine Yamba; Jackson lying stomach-down on a small table, supposedly swimming underwater; Jackson reciting Shakespeare to pass the time on his desert island; Sung as lovely Yamba; a boat made of an opened ladder turned on its side and backed by a footlocker; Sung and Cherry as two blueblood English ladies gossiping over tea; Perez as Queen Victoria; and a shattering meeting of the World Geographical Society. All these scenes are ingeniously made, and there are others almost as pleasing. But all the interest is in the staging, with very little in the story told. So we find ourselves wondering what the director and actors will do next, when we should be asking what will become of the characters.
Oh well. There’s still much to admire here.
And not least, the proof that the live theater can do anything.