PlayMakers Repertory Company is closing out the fall portion of its exciting 2010-11 season with a hoot of a holiday show. Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself), a bright amalgam of good-humored storytelling and funny stage effects, by Donald Margulies, is deep enough for grown-ups trapped in the analytical side of their brains and wide enough to accommodate the childlike sense of unfettered possibility that lies at the heart of all play-making.
"The world may be dangerous, but it is marvelous," crows Louis de Rougemont near the play's beginning. Impersonated here by PRC's Scott Ripley, Louis is a charmer. He was a sickly 19th century boy whose mother read to him by the hour, and he devoured all the great adventure literature of his time, imagining it all from his bed (a steamer trunk), in a scenario very like Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, "The Land of Counterpane." Gradually gaining strength, Louis determines to leave his home for an adventure of his own. His loving mother presses into his hands a volume of Shakespeare (all he will need to know, she says, is between these covers) and a purse of money. The money is promptly stolen, rain pours down, etc., but chance coughs up a sea captain needing an extra man to go pearling in the Coral Sea of Australia. And so the preposterous tales are launched with the ship WonderWorld.
Ripley, his face radiant with joyful enthusiasm, has had us in the palm of his hand from about ten seconds into his first speech, and his hold on our attention and happiness persists through all the many "chapters" of this 30-year tale, serialized in a magazine upon de Rougemont's eventual return to London. This is partly thanks to guest Tom Quaintance's warm direction. Quaintance has worked with PRC several times — on The Little Prince, and more recently, with Joseph Haj, on the plethora of stories comprising Nicholas Nickleby. Quaintance knows when to hold 'em, knows when to fold 'em, knows how to keep the game going without any slack when new adventure cards are dealt. He and Ripley are greatly aided in their frolic through time by Robin Vest's clever scenic design. Ryan J. Gastelum and Mark Lewis' sound and music, three other cast members who play multiple brief roles, and three more who fill in the ensemble when they aren't upstage producing the sound effects for our aural and visual delight.
Dee Dee Batteast, a new MFA student in the Dept. of Dramatic Art, is fine as Louis' mother and even better as the Aboriginal woman who becomes his wife. She has to be strong to stand up to the various hilarities of the versatile Jimmy Kieffer, and they both have to work a little harder to compete with the show-stealing dog Bruno, gorgeously acted by Derrick Ledbetter.
When Bruno dies, Louis decides it is time to return to London; his wife does not wish to leave her home, so they part, with Louis walking and walking across the Outback until he comes across signs of prospectors. In the only slightly sour line in the show, he notes: "The first sign of civilization, and it's litter." After his first hot bath in nearly 30 years, he takes a westbound steamer to London — a shock. "While I was in the ageless Outback, something had happened, something inevitable — progress."
Magazines had appeared to feed the public frenzy for adventure stories from the wide world of Empire; Louis' is soon serialized and he, soon lionized. He meets Queen Victoria (Jimmy Kieffer, much reduced in height and royally dressed) and speaks before the Royal Geographic Society. Promptly debunked by scholars and savaged by the press, he loses all but the most important things. "Truth," he asks, "what is truth? Can one hold it? If I'm guilty of anything, it is dabbing a few spots of color on life's drab canvas."
And so, he rides into the sunset on the back of a great sea turtle — a thing that cannot be done in the scholars' world — a happy man, sharing the gift of happiness with anyone who cares to listen to stories of a marvelous world.
Shipwrecked! Continues in the Paul Green Theatre through Dec. 19. See our calendar for details.