Theater Reviews

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Julianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Through Oct. 14

To its enormous credit, South Coast Repertory has commissioned and concocted a presentation totally devoted to entertaining its audience on what, at first acquaintance, seems to be a totally unlikely premise.

On the surface, it's merely a dog and pony show, a children's theater of feints and gestures about the alleged escapades of a Baron Munchhausen figure, using primarily the theatrical gimmicks and gizmos (or their modern equivalents) that would have been available to creative theatrical types in the late 19th century. It turns out, much to the surprise of the more sober types in the audience, that "Shipwrecked!" is that most difficult of achievements, an authentic and joyful recapturing of totally incredible exploits that adults can enjoy unreservedly, and without guilt.

Unfortunately, children's entertainment created for adults is rarely successful. Too often they turn out to be ponderous and serious (which "Shipwrecked!" does only briefly, near the end), suffocatingly wordy and without the absurdities that children cherish so well. The trick is to tell the childish tales with such uninhibited eloquence and in such fantastic detail that the adults will begin to remember what it was like to be transported into fictional dimensions.

Not that children, of course, especially precocious ones who can imagine the exhilarating delights of riding sea turtles in the open sea without having to see them visually represented, won't enjoy this marvelous show.

The production's greatest accomplishment might be that the fabulist adventures of the real-life, really roguish Louis de Rougement -- born Louis Grin in 1847 -- have been successfully brought to life by the playwright Donald Margulies and his partners in crime, a South Coast Repertory team headed by director Bart DeLorenzo. They do this by keeping the production values to the level of what an amateur company might dream of achieving rather than what a professional company might despise.

The cast for the world premiere is appropriately superb, with Gregory Itzin playing as if he were Louis himself. Itzin's English-accented enunciation, with its grand sonority, and subtly winking hints and inflections, is lovely to listen to. His gestures are flamboyant and his interaction with the audience so warm and generous that he has them eating out of his hand (though he never oversteps the bounds of taste or propriety).

Melody Butiu, who plays Louis' mother, lover, wife and a host of other characters, has a delicious energy that makes the intermissionless 90 minutes of the play always fun. As is Michael Daniel Cassady, who plays the heroic, understanding Bruno (the dog we all dream of) and other incidental roles while also providing many of the sound effects with panache.

"Shipwrecked!" must have been enormous fun to dream up and bring to fruition, and it shows from the first bit of business when Louis includes in his opening flourishes the prerequisite announcements of where the exits are and that all electronic gadgets must be turned off.

The only remaining caveat is, if you're in the mood for a gloomy bit of Shakespeare or some tortured O'Neill, "Shipwrecked!" might make you laugh uncontrollably.

SHIPWRECKED!
Presented by South Coast Repertory
Credits:
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Director: Bart DeLorenzo
Set designer: Keith E. Mitchell
Costume designer: Candice Cain
Lighting designer: Rand Ryan
Composer/sound designer: Steven Cahill
Shadow set designer: Christine Marie
Casting: Joanne DeNaut
Cast:
Louis de Rougemont: Gregory Itzin
Player 1: Melody Butiu
Player 2: Michael Daniel Cassady
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