Theater review: ‘Shipwrecked!’

[At long last, my review of Shipwrecked!, which opened at Mad Cow while we were on vacation:]

All the trappings are in place for a big, smashing theatrical hit – a cast of able actors, a script by a Pulitzer Prize-winner, a reliable director, a title long enough to take up four or five lines on a theater marquee.

So what has happened with Shipwrecked!, the wan little 2007 comedy onstage at Mad Cow Theatre through next weekend?

Maybe it was the weather, the billowing rainstorms that kept people off the streets of downtown Orlando. Maybe it was the Thursday-night audience, a tiny turnout of steadfast folk who didn’t laugh often enough or loud enough to feed a needy cast.

Or maybe it’s a production with just enough missteps to throw this mild-mannered little show off its track.

Donald Margulies wrote Shipwrecked! – the full title is Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) – as a play for children but also as a theatrical tour de force that would bring out the inner child in all of his audiences. The script morphed away from being meant for kids (although there’s nothing taboo about it), but the intention remained to produce a little piece that still will make you go “wow.”

That wow factor is largely missing from Mad Cow’s production, which takes Margulies’ directions seriously but fails to make much of them. The set, as the playwright instructs, is deliberately cheesy and low-tech – a trio of big wooden boxes, a clothesline to display props, a table of stuff to produce sound effects, from a set of wind chimes to some whistles to one of those big metal boards that produces the sound of thunder on demand.

And director Rob Anderson’s cast seems game – Eric Pinder as de Rougemont, who first comes onstage dressed in a red silk frock coat and looking sort of like a dazed cardinal; along with Trenell Mooring and Eric Fagan, who play everybody else.

The story is based on the real-life tale of de Rougemont, a late-19th-century adventurer and fabulist, who continued to deliver tales of his daring exploits even after adoring crowds stopped believing anything he said. In Shipwrecked!, he tells of having been a sickly child until, at 16, he waltzed out his mother’s door, signed up as a sailor and wound up marooned off the coast of Australia, where he married a lovely native and reported seeing flying wombats and riding the backs of giant sea turtles, which he steered by poking them in the eyes.

Perhaps Pinder, a wonderfully comic actor with a facetious air, is not the right person to play a man who takes himself very seriously. Pinder is agile enough to put on de Rougemont’s displays of acrobatics (I always admire a man who can do cartwheels onstage), and he comes across as simple enough to have fallen into a whole pile of strange adventures. But when de Rougemont falls from grace, this version leaves the audience confused. Are you supposed to think that all these things really happened, or that they didn’t happen but de Rougemont believes they did? Pinder and his director give you no clue.

It doesn’t help that the production itself seems decidedly bland, despite the efforts of the two remaining (and tireless) cast members. Fagan is funny as the ship captain’s dog, Bruno (in long johns and a furry cap with earflaps) and as Queen Victoria (on his knees). Mooring gets the less interesting roles, those of de Rougemont’s sainted mama and his wife. But even though both are busy – changing costumes, providing the occasional sound effect – the result is often slow, forced and not nearly as funny as it might be. Even the sound effects themselves are obvious (a whistle is used for … a whistle) and muted, as if somebody next door had told the show to quiet down.

As playwright, Margulies is asking his audience for a lot – to buy into a crazy story and then to feel for the storyteller when he turns out to be a fraud. As director, Anderson doesn’t give that audience either experience: You’re not transformed by the magic of the tale, and you’re not drawn in to the foibles of de Rougemont’s personality. It’s like signing up for a sea voyage and then finding you’re booked for a kiddie-carnival ride: More than anything, you wind up confused.

‘Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself)’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Donald Margulies comedy.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through July 11 (also, 8 p.m. Wednesday July 7).
Cost: $22 general, $20 seniors and students, $15 Wednesday.
Call: 407-297-8788.
Online: Madcowtheatre.com.

(Photo: Eric Pinder, Eric Fagan and Trenell Mooring. Photo by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.)

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