Theatre Review: “Shipwrecked” at the Phoenix

Eddie Curry (L) and Charles Goad (R) in "Shipwrecked" - photo by Julie Curry

Last Saturday night, my friend David picked me up and we drove to the professional Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see the Midwest premiere of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As told by himself)” written by Donald Margulies.  Bryan Fonseca directed.

This is a charming, richly nostalgic, back-to-creative-basics show that delights with, among other things, its use of sound effects that are made in the moment by a “soundscape crew” you can see.  (I.e. – the sounds are not pre-recorded or hidden.)  It is based on a real person in history and on various intriguing layers and versions of what really happened to him related to his adventures at sea.

I thought the ending was odd, and I still don’t know if that was because I was distracted by the two people that got up to use the restroom at pivotal moments or what.  I have been having a heck of a time trying to write this review because of that.  However, one thing I can tell you for sure is that I enjoyed the show very much. 

The Delights

Charles Goad is impressive as the narrator and star, Louis de Rougemont.  Even though Charles has memorized his part and is playing a character, he is an excellent storyteller: he responds authentically to reactions from the audience so that there is no fourth wall.  Alternate dimensions, maybe, but no fourth wall.

He also has complete command of the poetic language in this piece, which includes phrases such as “our battled boat barely stays afloat.”  (Try reading that phrase aloud.  It is a vocal warm-up all by itself!  Charles makes it seem natural and easy.)

Right from the beginning he makes it easy for us to suspend our disbelief, too.  Charles as Louis does the curtain talk instead of the usual Phoenix staff member.  He wears a relatively modern 3-piece suit at the beginning and if you hadn’t already seen the actor in several other shows around town, you might actually think that he is some sort of visiting entertainer, taking his quirky show on a sort of Fringe Festival circuit around the country.  He uses words like “egress” and “lozenges” as he tells you about the emergency exits and asks you to do your best not to distract the other audience members.

He also introduces his storytelling assistants by their real names and they come forward to bow: Eddie Curry will play Player 1.  Sara Riemen will play Player 2. 

(“Hey!” David whispered to me.  “Eddie Curry is in this?!  Excellent!”  We both love Eddie from seeing him many times in shows at the professional Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre, where he is also the casting director.  David had never seen Sara Riemen before, but I loved her work in “The Dos and Don’ts of Time Travel” and in “On Thin Ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3” last season.  Both Eddie and Sara outdo themselves in their display of acting prowess in “Shipwrecked!”  Some of their portrayals are priceless – Sara as the bearded and salty old ship’s captain and Eddie as the epitome of all the best dogs that ever lived, to name only two of many examples.  All are cleverly specific and fully realized, even evolving and changing, whether they appear on stage for a while or merely moments.)

There are also three “soundscape crew” members:  stage manager Patrick Koenig, Audrey Stauffer, and Brandon Gelvin. 

After the introductions, all take their positions at various places “back stage” but in plain view while the lights come up on the raised oval made from wooden planks (a nod to the days when actors literally “trod the boards”?) in the middle of the stage.

“The whole set is a character all by itself,” David said later.  “At first you think, ‘what is all this mess and why are they letting us see it?’ but then every single thing you see is used somewhere in the story.   Every single thing.” 

I agree that Kyle Ragsdale’s deceptively simple set is very cool and that the soundscape crew do a fantastic job of embellishing the story in fascinating ways.  I also admire technical director Christopher Hansen and costume designer Stephen Hollenbeck for the wide variety of props and clothing items that they pulled together for the performers to use to suggest hundreds of characters, places, events, objects, sounds, and moods.  New-to-the-Phoenix Michael McNamara’s lighting designs are ingenious, too.  Dani Norberg is up in the light booth during the show, operating the lights and sounds not created by the soundscape people on stage.  J. C. Pankratz was the dramaturg.  I bet this is a very fun show to do dramaturgy for!

With only a red trunk as furniture on the oval stage, Charles as Louis tells us – with a perfectly timed “ping!” from a member of the soundscape crew between each chapter – the story of his happy but overly-protected childhood and then how he left home at the age of 16 to have adventures, first in the big city of London and then on a ship called “The Wonder World.”  (You can imagine what happens next just from the title of the play.)

For All Ages?

The show is advertised as the Phoenix’ first show in 26 years that is completely family-friendly and appropriate for ages 8-80.

And that’s true, but…

Well, it’s true that in this Phoenix show there are no references to, or instances of, cursing, drugs, the economy, heterosexuality, homosexuality, infidelity, kidnapping, murder, nudity, politics, racism, religion, sexism, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide, torture, other violence, or world annihilation.

On the other hand, there are also no talking dinosaurs, flying cars, or larger-than-life mice with whom to get your photo taken afterwards.  This show is funny and magical, but also very smart, if that makes sense.

So I was going to call this “theatre for gifted children and their hip parents and grandparents” rather than for just anyone ages 8-80.  By “gifted” I mean people who, when they get together to play make-believe with their friends, do it really, really well and therefore can appreciate when someone else does it well, too.

But that didn’t feel quite right.

Then I read a “Playwrights on Playwriting” article written by Donald Margulies for the September 23, 2007 Los Angeles Times.  He said that his intention for “Shipwrecked!” was “to capture the attention of the hidden child in everyone in my audience.  I wanted to write a play that would make no attempt to replicate onstage what television and movies do but would instead celebrate the uniqueness of theatre.” (emphasis mine)

Margulies goes on: “My impulse was to strip away the trappings of spectacle and get back to what theater does best: tell stories that reflect our world or create new ones that can enlighten, amuse, transport, make you forget, or force you to remember.”

Yes.  THAT is what this show does: it celebrates the uniqueness of theatre in a way that is accessible to anyone ages 8-80.

So…if you are a kid and your teachers have labeled you “gifted,” your parents may make you go home after this show and use the ideas you got in “Shipwrecked!” to design your own special theatrical effects to go with the potentially Pulitzer Prize winning play you wrote last year in 3rd grade.  But if no one waves the “enrichment” flag around you, you may just do it for yourself, for fun.  I would.

Whether you are a “gifted” kid or not, the adults in your life may take you to this show in the hopes of showing you why they love live theatre.  They love you, too, so… now that you’re old enough, they want their two loves – you and theatre – to meet.

And whatever your age, yes, this is the Phoenix, home of consistently thought-provoking theatre, but you don’t have to dig deep at all after this show if you don’t want to.  You can just say things like “I loved how they made the sounds of the fire” and “I loved how they showed the octopus tentacle” and “I wanted to rub that dog’s tummy, didn’t you?”  in the car on the ride home and leave it at that.

As David said, “There is not a lot to deconstruct in this one.  It’s ‘just’ fun.”

Box Office

Actually, I do have a couple things about this piece that I’d like to deconstruct, but they involve spoilers, so let me first say that “Shipwrecked!” by Donald Margulies, runs Thursday-Sunday at the Phoenix Theatre through November 8, 2009.  Each performance runs approximately 85 minutes with no intermission.  Please call 317-635-PLAY(7529) to make a reservation.  Thanks to Duke Energy, Thursdays and Sundays are “Cheap Seats Nights” when regular adult tickets are only $15.  Even on Fridays and Saturdays, tickets are only $20 this season (down from $25 last season.)  Tickets are always $15 for people age 24 and under.

The Ending (Spoilers)

This is the point in the review where you stop reading, go see the show yourself, and then come back to read this next part and maybe leave a comment in my comment box about what you thought of the show.

I was completely captivated by this piece all through when Louis came home, sold his story to a magazine and became so famous that people were stopping him on the street for his autograph and even the Queen wanted to meet him. 

But then when people started to doubt Louis’ story, and he began to doubt it himself so much that he lost his train of thought and Dani had to turn up the house lights and Sara had to offer him a drink of water, then we were no longer in Louis’ story but in a meta-story.  (Again, David’s word.  Thank you, David!) 

David said later, “I even thought it was real for a moment or two, that the actor had forgotten his lines so badly and become so disoriented that they had to stop the show.  Just for a moment.”

I never thought that, because I can’t imagine professional actor Chuck Goad messing up that badly, but that scene did feel weird.  Not weird in a maddening or disappointing way, mind you, but…well, I was still captivated, but I was also unsettled.  I couldn’t help wondering: was Louis’ mind shipwrecked?  Should we believe his story or not?  What’s going on here?  Where and when are we, anyway?

And then when everyone stopped believing and a psychologist called him delusional and Louis became destitute and wore a sign that said “Will tell my story for money” because he still believed his story was true AND he still wanted validation for it, my heart ached for him and my mind went off on all kinds of emotional tangents about truth and storytelling and personal integrity.  I thought about how it is easy to be swayed in our truths by money or poverty or fame or boredom or skeptics.  I also thought about how the stories we tell ourselves do become true, whether someone else would call them factual or not.  

The show ends with Louis conducting a sea turtle riding exhibition because this was one of the aspects of his adventure story that people couldn’t believe.  He slides onto the turtle’s back and gives a shout for joy as if to say, “See?!  The whole adventure, all of the magic I told you about, it was all real!”

But I wasn’t quite back on board with him yet, wasn’t quite sure, yet, about his sanity, and too soon the show was over.

So, as I say, the ending felt odd to me.

But maybe that was how I was supposed to feel?

I don’t think I will have time to see this show again, but if I did, I would.  I hope that you will go see it, too, and then tell me about your experience of it.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

(The photo above of Eddie Curry (L) and Charles Goad (R) was taken by Julie Curry.)

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Shipwrecked” at the Phoenix”

  1. Thank you Hope for your wondeful impressions and experience of the play! And, thank you again for all you do in covering the arts in Indy!

  2. You’re welcome, Chuck. Thank you for all YOU do on stage! I really would like to see “Shipwrecked!” again. Maybe on one of the remaining Thursday nights. Anyway, other people have been telling me how much they enjoyed it, too. Break a leg with the rest of your “Shipwrecked!” run and with “A Christmas Carol” at the IRT next month, too!

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