The Rogue Theatre
'Shipwrecked' a wildly imaginative ride
Much is made by suggestion – a scrap of costuming, a sound, a gesture – to flesh out a fascinating world
Categorizing artistic works is one of the many tics affecting critics. The Rogue Theatre’s current production, “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)” is wonderfully difficult to categorize. It may also be the best show yet from Tucson’s sharpest theater troupe.
Contrary to Rogue’s usual penchant for archly intellectual works playfully done, “Shipwrecked” is a playful amalgam of slapstick comedy performed in the style of an old-time radio drama.
It would not be out of place either in a local Gaslight Theatre production or on Garrison Keillor’s "Prairie Home Companion." Sometimes it feels like children’s theater, sometimes vaudeville, sometimes theater of the absurd – but throughout, the focus, as its title declares, is on entertainment. “Shipwrecked” is simply fun, fun, fun.
That’s not to say it eschews intellectual content. Before it ends, the play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, becomes a vivid argument for the power of imagination and a stern indictment on rigid notions of truth. Not surprisingly for a Rogue production, the play has elegant grace notes of postmodernism in one moment, erudite references to Shakespeare in the next.
“Shipwrecked” is based on a real 19th century person. For a short period, Louis de Rougemont captured the world’s attention with his fantastic autobiographical tale. Sickly as a child, he indulged heavily in reading about adventures to faraway, exotic places.
Leaving home in England as a teenager, he signed on for a pearl-gathering voyage to the South Pacific. There he was shipwrecked, marooned until he rescued a native family lost at sea and became a member of their aboriginal tribe through marriage. Eventually he made it to Australia and then back to England, where his story became a publishing sensation. Mirroring its period serialization, his adventures in the play are divided dramatically into 10 chapters
As candidates for political office have increasingly found, too much attention can be a bad thing, a very bad thing. Skeptical individuals start digging into the past, dredging up logical inconsistencies, questioning the truth. Gaffes become headlines and you can go from hero to has-been in a heartbeat. In the last minutes of the play, this is where de Rougemont finds himself. In the end, his response to these doubts and reproachments reshapes all that we have seen. At that point on opening night, the audience leapt to its feet, applauding enthusiastically before the lights even faded out.
Margulies’ text is merely the framework for the multifaceted production that director Cynthia Meier has built out of her team’s wild collective improvisations during weeks of rehearsals. Much is made by suggestion – a scrap of costuming, a sound, a gesture – to flesh out the fascinating world surrounding de Rougemont.
David Morden unabashedly embraces this larger than life role as his character discovers the wide richness of the world beyond his books and backyard. Morden’s admiration for his character’s vastness emboldens his performance in a role that literally can not be over-exaggerated.
Rogue stalwarts Patty Gallagher and Joseph McGrath provide primary support for Morden’s mostly solo narrative. Gallagher effectively evokes mother, infants, ship’s captain, and native girl. McGrath’s nearly steals the show, however. His characterizations, ranging from to the Queen of England to a tongue-lolling, cross-eyed canine companion, celebrate a serious actor’s unbridled willingness to go for the laugh.
Joining on the periphery of the stage to provide sound effects (and occasionally joining in the action) are Angela Dawnielle Horchem and Matt Walley. Musical director Dawn C. Sellers provides additional audio enhancements. The bare stage contrasts tellingly with the cluttered walls, dripping with multiple musical instruments, props and costumes, the entire show’s accoutrements on display.
Donning grass skirts over their basic black outfits turns them all into island natives. When Gallagher and McGrath as mimsy aristocrats mime afternoon tea from imaginary cups, Horchem and Walley rattle actual tea cups behind them for effect. The sun rises and sets to the sound of a slide whistle.
Throughout the ensemble manages to perform with a looseness that implies improvisation, but then suddenly coheres into intricately coordinated moments that belie the circus-like freedom. They often seem like medieval mummers casually performing a work they have done for years.
The pre-show musical segment, a Rogue tradition which starts 15 minutes before the curtain and is not to be missed, includes a cast version of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Morden sings the lead in a version of Rudyard Kipling’s “On the Road to Mandalay” that foreshadows his broad character in the play. The segment is bookended by Sellers performing Romantic piano works by Fredrick Chopin and Robert Schumann.
“Shipwrecked,” as performed by the Rogue company, is a work that celebrates the childlike magic of theater in a very visceral way, while still having plenty of intellectual meat to chew on. It may be the best work in their seven year existence and the perfect opportunity for newcomers to become acquainted with their special style of theater.