There’s far more than meets the eye at work when the four-person cast of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment sets sail. The play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies and produced by Milwaukee theater Splinter Group, is a riotous romp in the vein of classic high-seas adventures, albeit one that plays fast and loose with the truth for comedic and poignant effect.
The play's subtitle, "The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)," is a literal explanation of the play's events, but the more significant part of the long title comes earlier. "An Entertainment" is the real giveaway for what is going on here. In the words of Louis himself (an actual Victorian-era person), "This is a temple of entertainment." For the rest of the evening, Louis (portrayed by T. Stacy Hicks) will narrate his supposed survival of disaster after disaster, all with a broad, inviting smile and the larger-than-life showmanship of a circus ringleader.
The play's adventures most resemble novels such as Robinson Caruso and The Arabian Nights. These specific books — among many others — are also among those Louis tells us his mother read to him when he was a sickly child, growing up in London. Unable to play outdoors with other children, Louis was entertained by his protective mother.
So it is no surprise that much healthier Louis leaves home at 16 to pursue his own faraway adventures. As luck has it (one of many humorous coincidences in this show), he encounters a grouchy sea captain (played by a deep-voiced Kathiamarice Lopez) who is about to set sail on a pearl-hunting expedition to the Coral Sea, off the coast of Australia. Of course he invites Louis to become part of the crew. Oh, the amazing things that can happen in 19th-century London!
As the boat sets sail, Louis’ adventures are about to begin. He survives an attack by a sea monster during a storm; washes up on a beach along with the faithful ship’s dog, Bruno; learns to ride sea turtles for amusement; falls in love with one of the native girls who also wash ashore on the island many years later; has two daughters; and then makes a tearful farewell as he sails to Australia and, eventually, back to England.
Over the course of this 90-minute show, Splinter Group easily demonstrates both the power of storytelling — timeless as cavemen sitting around a campfire — and the power of theater — able to delight audiences even with a minimum amount of props, costume changes or actors.
The story, under the co-direction of company founders Niffer Clarke and Jim Farrell, manages to stay afloat for the entire 90 minutes, thanks in large part to T. Stacy Hicks. Hicks is on stage the entire time, either acting out scenes or addressing the audience directly as the play’s narrator. His energy and zest for the story is infectious. With the glee of a pied piper, he confidently brings the audience along on his amazing journeys. He even gets a chance to demonstrate some of his acrobatic skills.
He often invites audience members to consider their own emotions under various circumstances. “How would you feel,” he says after surviving a stormy night at sea, “if you wake up (the next morning) at sea, clinging to a bit of ship debris, and can’t see anything but water?”
The rest of the cast plays dozens of roles. The most seasoned actor among them, David Rothrock, is funny and realistic as the ship’s dog. Later, he portrays Queen Victoria as she slips a medal of honor over Louis’ head upon his return to London.
The female cast members, Kathiamarice Lopez and Kristin Johnson, are also up to the task. Lopez gives a touching performance as Louis’ mother and, later, as his jungle-raised wife. The women also portray Victorian ladies sipping tea (Rothrock is one of these, too), London-based scientists, the ship’s crew, a magazine editor, and more.
The cast also gets extra credit for periodically breaking out hand-held sound effects equipment (no synthesized noises allowed). The sounds of crashing thunder, didgeridoo playing and — most enjoyably — typing on a manual typewriter enrich the production.
The single set, created by Jim Farrell, suggests a nautical theme. Walls are draped with fish decorations, ship rigging, wood buoys and so forth. Sturdy storage crates are moved around the stage for individual scenes.
Although Shipwrecked! sometimes veers towards melodrama, it is very funny and — as the title implies — entertaining. Here’s the “more than it seems” part. One must confront the extent of one’s own sense of disbelief to determine whether the events recounted are real or not. In other words, how much truth is in the tale?
Splinter Group's production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment runs through March 13 at the Marian Center for Nonprofits, 3211 S. Lake Drive, Milwaukee. Tickets are $15 ($20 at the door) and can be ordered online at splinter-group.org. For questions, call 414-935-2207.