Curtains: Actors Theatre's Shipwrecked! at the Herberger

Categories: Curtains

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John Groseclose
Precious moments: A "wedding portrait" featuring the cast of Shipwrecked!: from left, Kirk Jackson, Yetide Badaki, and Oliver Wadsworth.
Our need to tear down our idols didn't start with reality stars, athletes, or even politicians. Eat a little forbidden fruit and you're kicked out of the garden for good. And even if you're honest and sweet, it turns out, someone will be glad to slander you for a price. Some celebrities cycle all the way through the media machine and back out to obscurity before we ever find out what was true.

We get a bit of insight into this phenomenon toward the end of Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself), a juggernaut of a short play based on the true story of what very likely was a largely fake, but rampantly popular, story from the turn of the previous century. But before the end, we get the story, and oh! what a story.

de Rougemont claimed he ran away to sea as a young man and, shortly after joining a pearling expedition to the Coral Sea off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, was cast ashore by a violent storm with only the ship's dog, Bruno, for company. There he remained until a near-dead Australian aboriginal family washed up in their catamaran. And, well, why spoil the rest? It's a real page-turner.

30 years later, de Rougemont's tale was the hit of the pulp magazines until scientists, alleged former employers, a librarian who claimed to have witnessed his voluminous research, a woman who claimed to be the wife he'd abandoned in Sydney, and other witnesses called the details into question. Back then, there was less motivation to discredit a storyteller (little money, no 15 minutes of fame, no reality show or commentator spots on Fox News), so I think it's probably true that he was, perhaps, marooned alone on New Guinea for a mere three years and longed to have a grander adventure to relate.

The coolest part, though, is Actors Theaters' production. It's a take on Poor Theater, a style developed by Polish artist Jerzy Grotowski, in which stage events consist primarily of performers and the audience; it's an intense experience that cloaks virtuosity in simplicity. There's no hiding behind lavish production elements; in fact, we can see the back wall of the stage house itself.

The platform that serves alternately as ship, island, street, garden, and lecture hall is transformed slightly by just a few objects, wardrobe accessories, and simple sound and lighting effects, but mostly by the tireless, Olympian vocal and physical achievements of Matthew Wiener's cast of hundreds played by a total of three actors.

Kirk Jackson plays de Rougemont. The entire time. Relentlessly, self-effacingly, joyfully, movingly, comically, his pie-hole rarely ceasing to emit 100% fascinating and intelligible words, and his tall, robust frame enacting every surprise and calamity, from a teenager's first thrills at sea-diving to an aging, used-up loner snatching his one bit of redemption.

Oliver Wadsworth and Yetide Badaki play everyone else, sometimes taking on four or five characters within ten seconds. Each portrays both women and men, adults and children, from multiple continents, social classes, and even species, with voices, bodies, and dispositions as different as 30 years of nights and days. The show's thrilling, breakneck pace makes it effortless and captivating, even though most of the questions in the short after-show Q&A were some version of "How did you do that?"

It's impossible for me to decide what was more fun: watching all this talent (the genius and hard work of all the designers is also in constant evidence, at the same time that it's painstakingly minimal) or seeing the play itself unfold. Maybe it's meant to be impossible to pry them apart. Take your kids, parents, artist friends, dancer friends, people who've never been to a play before. I think they'll all like this one.

Shipwrecked! continues through Sunday, February 7, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $7 (for children) to $45; order them here or call 602-252-8497. Discounted "rush" seats are available the day of the show for both students and adults; see details here.


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