Posted by: strugglesome | April 9, 2012

Coasts of Utopia: People’s Light and Theatre Company’s Shipwrecked

You can always count on children and fools to tell the truth. It may be distressing or debilitating, but small humans and dim humans are the ones to turn to when you want to know what’s what. Theater teaches us this over and over again, look at King Lear, for goodness sakes. However, they are also the first to believe in the magical, the unbelievable, the unreal. So what does that say, then, about truth? And about liars? Is the magical just another way to tell the truth, or is it a deception practiced on the deepest level? Are the stories that enthrall children and cause adults to wrinkle their noses with cynicism true or false? Or are true and false perhaps not the right terms to use? After all, fact and truth are not really the same thing, now, are they? Certainly not when it comes to theater.

So when one writes a play for children, it follows that it must be at once very fantastical and very true. And that’s what Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As told by himself) is clearly aiming for in it’s production by People’s Light and Theatre Company. Set in a world chock full of oddities and objects, encased in Tony Straiges’ lovely and whimsical set design, the piece, like the world of the play, is a grab bag. Peppered with references to all the great adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and details from Dr.Dolittle (the books, not the films) the tale is told by Louis (Graham Smith) himself (as the elaborate title would imply). With his trusty assistants (Mary McCool and James Ijames), Louis depicts his travels from Victorian England to a pearling ship in Australia to becoming the spouse of an aboriginal maiden, only to return to his beloved England, years later, a writer, a national hero, a public disgrace, a liar. Or is he? Can he really ride upon sea turtles and did he really paddle the seas in a canoe and fight off rival tribes? Or is he just a sad delusional man, dreaming of adventure and excitement to escape his own middling existence? But the true question this play asks is, does it even matter? As long as the story is good and the sentiment is true? After all, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Told as a story to an audience, Smith mesmerizes the younger folk in his audience, even if the older spectators are less captivated. Wide eyed and full of life, Smith dashes about the space, declaiming Margulies’ long passages as though he can see the sand and sea in his mind’s eye. He might stutter over a line or two (he does have so very many) and the story might lose momentum as it’s told (an issue of both text and actor) but the devotion he possesses to telling his story and making sure we understand his journey is one that captivated the younger audience members and never let them go.

And then we have his supporting cast. McCool and Ijames do an admirable job filling every single other role in this production, which, as I understand it, is the intention of the script. They use paper mache puppets, scraps of fabric and sweetly utilitarian costumes to jump from character to character, waiting for Smith’s cues and ever attentive to the story he tells. They have the unenviable task of making someone else’s vision make sense, and they discharge it well, but any pair of solid actors would be underused in these roles, and McCool and Ijames are no exception.While they support the stuttering Smith in his slowly told tale, guiding him gently through Margulies’ flawed script and ignoring Smith’s own faltering pace and halting mutterings. He is clearly attempting to be our lighthouse in the stormy night of this story, but his lantern flickers and falters, despite director Jackson Phippin’s even and neat direction and aesthetic unity.

The real credit for the magic and the wonder of this production must go entirely to the design team. Straiges’ set is glorious, a fantastic world of cardboard creatures and intriguing oddities. It hits just the right balance between conscious collection and unsightly clutter, making us fascinated by each object, rather than overwhelmed. This world of story and tall tale is bathed in Dennis Parichy’s lighting plot, a golden glow of gentle amber and yellows. Rosemarie McKelvey’s impeccable and custom-made costumes are a treat to see, well-fitting and beautifully practical, managing to shift from scene to scene while still retaining a sense of style. And Daniel Perelstein’s sound design beautifully punctuates the play, blending vintage whimsy with a sense of adventure. The unity and ingenuity of the design are commendable, really it’s a gorgeous example of the way collaboration between disciplines can be used to serve a story, to house a world in which a play has space to breathe. And it might be more than this particular play deserves, frankly. Because when you rip off every grand adventure story in the library and then add an 11th hour twist in an attempt to make more serious that which was gently humorous and exciting, well, it’s rather a let down for the audience, and it forces a philosophical projection onto what was a pleasant and well told story.

Still. What do I know, I’m not a kid. And I can enjoy the pretty picture even if I’m not wild about the subject.

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of Shipwrecked runs until April 15th. Tickets are available here.

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