Whether you are eight years old or eighty, you will delight in the sheer magic of live theater at the Geffen Playhouse’s production of Donald Margulies magnificent adventure story, Shipwrecked! What would cost Hollywood a couple hundred million dollars to achieve, the geniuses behind this production and its three supremely gifted actors (doing the work of the proverbial “cast of thousands”) achieve at a fraction of the cost, with equal or greater entertainment value.

Rarely have all the elements of a live production (writer, director, actors, design team) come together more wondrously than they do in Shipwrecked (whose full title is Shipwrecked! An Entertainment The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by Himself)). Drawing on classics like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island, Shipwrecked takes you on a journey across the seas to (nearly) deserted islands where tropical storms and exotic creatures await you. And that’s just the beginning!

Shipwreck’s story is told in the first person by de Rougemont (a British citizen with a French name) himself, speaking directly to the audience. First, however, he points out to us the location of the “egresses” in case of emergency and cautions us to turn off any “noise making devices.” “Tuck them away or we’ll crush them away,” he threatens with a twinkle in his eye.  De Rougemont (portrayed by Tony nominee Gregory Itzin) also introduces us to his two young helpers, “Miss Butiu” (Melody Butiu) and “Mr. Cassaday” (Michael Daniel Cassady), who will portray the many people (and animals) he encounters on his journeys.

We first meet de Rougemont as a fragile boy with a docile constitution (played by the adult Itzin without change in makeup) being told bedtime adventure stories by his mother as he makes shadow figures on the walls. Soon he is sixteen and aboard ship sailing for the farthest seas. Shipwrecked on an island with only the ship’s dog Bruno for company, he eventually meets several Aborigines with whom he bonds. To reveal more of the story would be to spoil its many marvelous surprises.

Shipwrecked! does darken considerably in its last half hour, and acquire deeper meaning as de Rougement’s credibility is called into question, but rather than detract from the magic and wonder of what has preceded, this only makes us appreciate even more the power of imagination.

Steven Cahill has composed background music befitting the most exciting of Hollywood’s adventure flicks, and created one of the most dazzlingly inventive sound designs in memory. The call of a trumpet, the clip-clop of horses hooves, the tolling of Big Ben, underwater wind chimes, and the roar of a typhoon are but a few of the tapestry of sounds and music that he has woven together for this production.

Equal to Cahill’s sound design are Rand Ryan’s lighting and Christine Marie’s “shadow scenic design.”  A large sail-shaped scrim fills the upstage wall, on which are projected a man-eating octopus, a ship-swallowing whirlpool, a burning sun, a ship in the distance, etc. Best of all is seeing how Marie recreates de Rougemont’s awe-inspiring “gymnastics” routines, which get him out of more than one scrape and elicit the loudest guffaws of the evening.

Keith E. Mitchell has designed a remarkably mobile and inventive set which, together with the actors’ suggestions and the audience’s imagination becomes just about any location we wish it to be, a child’s bedroom, a ship tossed by the waves of a storm, a deserted island, to mention just three.  And Candice Cane’s costumes (literal for de Rougemont, figurative for the two actors playing multiple characters) show equal imagination.  Finally, whoever created the two dolls which “portray” an Aborigine baby and a British child named Albert deserves an ovation just for these adorable creations.

Gregory Itzin, Tony nominated for The Kentucky Cycle, and the President of the United States on TV’s 24, has the audience in the palm of his hand from his first entrance.  With a voice reminiscent of Rex Harrison’s, his telling of his adventures is so full of joy and wonder and discovery that we cannot help but be swept along on his journey.

Marvelous Melody Butiu (so memorable in The Break-Up Notebook) gets to transform herself into (amongst others) a Cockney sea captain, an Aborigine maiden, a tabloid newspaper publisher, Queen Victoria, and a librarian.  As the Aborigine, Butiu is especially funny recounting the story of their shipwreck in her “native language” as de Rougemont translates for the audience, and wondrous as she discovers her first telescope. Her “native dance” is truly one of a kind.

Never has man’s best friend been brought to more vivid and adorable life than has de Rougemont’s Bruno by Michael Daniel Cassady. Whether panting, his tongue hanging low, or making a variety of dog sounds in his handheld mike, or cuddling up to his master to get his head scratched, Cassady’s work is masterful. And that’s not the only role the talented young actor gets to play. He and Butiu also double as Aborigines, Australian prospectors, a pair of veddy British ladies drinking their tea, pseudo-audience members, newspaper reporters, and Cassady solo appears as the “foremost expert on the wombat.”

When I first saw Shipwrecked! in its world premiere engagement last Fall at South Coast Repertory, I had approached it with a degree of skepticism. It sounded like it might be too “childish” for me and adventure movies are not my usual fare. However any reservations I may have harbored were instantly gone from the moment Itzin stepped on the stage, and my return voyage eight months later did not disappoint.

Donald Margulies, who is known for his insightful comedy-dramas such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner with Friends, proves himself as much a master of adventure as Defoe and Stevenson. And director Bart DeLorenzo, who has helmed award winning dramas such as The Cherry Orchard at the Evidence Room, demonstrates a limitless imagination in his exceptional direction of this 90 minute miracle of theatrical magic. Only the most jaded curmudgeon could fail to find wonder in this tale.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
June 26, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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