Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
Beginning on the nearly empty and suitably cavernous Geffen Playhouse stage “borrowed for the occasion” to tell his story—under set designer Keith Mitchell’s clever watch depicted as an austere playing space equipped only with a few wooden crates and a glaring ghost light—real-life London media celeb Louis de Rougemont starts recounting the fantastical adventure that brought him his personal 15 minutes of mid-19th-century fame.
This simple, straightforward beginning seems fairly spartan considering the eclectic mix of upwardly-mobile westsiders who regularly provide an artistic blank canvas for the Geffen’s opening night performances, but soon those steel-hearted patrons gathered to hear de Rougemont’s tale of an ill-fated pearling sea quest gone awry are breathlessly swept overboard along with the flamboyant storyteller and pulled down directly into the briny deep by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ mesmerizing adult fairytale Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself), now transferred with considerable reworking from its world premiere at South Coast Rep last fall.
Originally commissioned by SCR to play to young audiences only, as Shipwrecked! was developed from scratch over several incarnations, along the way whittled down from a cast of 12 in a three-day workshop conducted by noted director Lisa Peterson, it became apparent that the piece would play better to all audience members, not just geared toward 4th graders with the attention span of a 28-minute episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Surely the best decision along the way was to turn the reins over to the creative genius of director Bart DeLorenzo, a man sorely missed around this town and within our under-appreciated, fiercely loyal theatrical community since his astonishingly fertile evidEnce Room Theatre was unceremoniously snatched from his control by greedy landlords wanting a more prominent place in the sun for themselves—and then instead turned into just one more continuously struggling rental space.
Developing the play along with Margulies himself in attendance, the uniquely personal vision of DeLorenzo is apparent everywhere in Shipwrecked!, making the noted writer’s departure from the well-known intellectual sophistication of his Dinner with Friends or Collected Stories to something rivaling the escapist adventure of Treasure Island the real wonder of this thrilling production. And as is signature to the DeLorenzo experience, the guy has taken some of his favorite actors and designers along for the ride—to the benefit of us all.
No one could possibly bring to the demanding role of Louis de Rougemont more than the spectacularly versatile Gregory Itzin (with whom I happily shared LA Drama Critics Circle Best Actor honors in 2000), who basically never leaves the stage or stops talking. As his character’s grandiose and unbelievably exciting story is questioned for its authenticity, especially for the inclusion of minor details such as attacks by giant octopi, the flying of usually earthbound wombats, or regularly scheduled joyrides on the backs of sea turtles, Itzin’s performance must transform along with the capriciousness of de Rougemont’s notoriety.
As happened in real life, de Rougemont’s JT LeRoy-esque renown and the fortune it brought him are unceremoniously dashed into the rocky cliffs of public intolerance as he was exposed as a fraud, living out the remainder of his life in infamy and abject poverty. Here is where Itzin is at his finest, brilliantly finding subtle, touching nuances in his character as the man is brought down, never once acknowledging that his journey has been related with anything but complete truth and devoid of exaggeration.
Along with Mitchell’s set, Candace Cain’s colorful costumes, Rand Ryan’s always exquisite lighting, Steven Cahill’s John Williams-y original music and sound design, and the incredible shadow puppets created by Christine Marie, DeLorenzo provides a wonderful counterpoint to Itzin’s deliciously flamboyant performance when, early on in the proceedings, his character introduces Michael Daniel Cassady and Melody Butiu as, respectively, Player 1 and Player 2.
Announcing these two seemingly ultra-shy and somewhat awkward young assistants will aid him in moving crates and providing the sound effects needed to conjure crashing waves and the calls of tropical beasts, if one has never before been exposed to the specific talents of Cassady and Butiu—or if one is unfamiliar with the crafty handiwork of DeLorenzo—one would immediately think these two self-effacing and modest individuals will sink back into the proscenium to face camouflaging amongst the props.
Not a chance.
Soon, Butiu is morphing from the leading character’s cockney mum to perfectly limning a salty old seadog ship captain to playing de Rougemont’s aboriginal native love interest, while Cassady transforms from a starchy disbelieving scientific debunker to cross-dressing as Queen Victoria to playing Louis’ faithful canine companion Bruno—itself perhaps the most stunning physical depiction of a faithful mutt ever attempted by someone of our species.
From Bruno’s blank expressions to lolling tongue to expressively raising “eyebrows” to those dearly familiar lumpish doggie movements as he clunks from sitting up to lying down without much grace, Cassady immediately made this reviewer want to go out and rescue yet another doomed pup to add to my house’s abundance of grateful former shelter-dwelling companions.
Both of these knockout supporting actors are so much more than stagehands, giving career-defining performances worthy of every award LA theatre has to offer. The fact that I was the one who originally turned DeLorenzo on to the work of Cassady, who received my TicketHolder Award in 2003 for his LA stage debut in Shyness is Nice at Alliance Rep, is a great joy to me personally, especially since both of them thanked me profusely for the prophetic introduction once again at the Shipwrecked! opening night reception. Hopefully, it is a collaboration that will continue to conjure great things for a long, long time to come.
Beyond all it has going for it, Shipwrecked! is quintessentially subtitled An Entertainment: it is perfectly suited to distract us during our long hot Los Angeles summer as it deservedly showcases the world-class imaginations and artistry of DeLorenzo, his actors and designers to a larger audience, while gloriously reinventing the talents of Margulies, who is obviously nowhere near the pinnacle of what is bound to become a lengthy and diverse playwriting career.
Shipwrecked! plays through July 27 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; for tickets, call 310.208.5454. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com