Monday, February 9, 2009

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment


By Donald Margulies. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Primary Stages at 59E59. (CLOSED)

Most critics swoon over Michael Countryman's lead performance in Donald Margulies' transparent story-theater yarn about the nature of storytelling and theatrical artifice. They tend to be more divided on the fantastical play itself, and specifically on whether its story-theater approach--with all ancillary roles, and many sound effects, created by the resourceful Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays--is invigorating meta-theater or dangerously close to children's fare. And Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray comes up with an interesting new oxymoron for Countryman: "blandly compelling."

Bloomberg News A+
(John Simon) Equally effective as rousing adventure tale for youngsters and challenging comedy for adults...Margulies’s adaptation is vivid and vastly entertaining. Who is to dispute artistic truth’s being at least tantamount to the historic kind? Especially when, as here, the art is not only in the wonderfully graphic, pointed and suspenseful words, but also in the most resourceful acting, direction, design, music and fabulous sound effects, courtesy of the Primary Stages production...Devised by John Gromada, these sounds -- natural phenomena, lusty human and animalkind, wave-swept shore and bustling metropolis -- are almost worth the price of admission.

Variety A
(Marilyn Stasio) Slight, but nonetheless enchanting feat of old-fashioned storytelling...Margulies ("Sight Unseen," "Dinner With Friends") makes no apologies for the stripped-down nature of his new piece. On the contrary, he makes the art of bare-bones storytelling both the subject of his work and the style of its dramatic treatment. It's a story about storytelling, and what it does is tell a story...Countryman is one of those open-faced actors who, whatever role they happen to be playing, always strike you as honest...The wonderful thing about Countryman's performance, as directed with intelligence and wit by Lisa Patterson, is that he doesn't use vocal tricks or body contortions to effect the transformations undergone by de Rougemont during the course of his picaresque adventures. Letting the story speak for itself, he draws us into the magical realm of his imagination.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Michael Countryman's wide-eyed, boyish charm is ingratiating, as he leaps about the stage portraying de Rougemont, enthusiastically telling his life in chapters...Jeremy Bobb is hilarious as de Rougemont's loyal dog Bruno, among other roles, and nearly stops the show when he briefly appears as a famous British personage. Donnetta Lavinia Grays is equally adept at giving genuine characterization to each of her roles...Lisa Peterson directs these three talented actors, who work their magic on Neil Patel's brilliantly simple, round platform of a set...This old-fashioned approach to storytelling works perfectly, involving the audience to such a degree that, when de Rougemont's tales of fabulous adventures are eventually punctured by self-righteous, 19th century British scientists and journalists, the audience becomes as downcast as Louis himself.

Village Voice A
(Michael Feingold) Through Lisa Peterson's speedy, ingenious production, Margulies supplies the sheer fun of theatrical storytelling, complete with acrobatic stunts, musical effects, and the inventiveness of two supporting actors, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb, who have to embody everything from a dog and a parrot to an old sea captain and Queen Victoria. Countryman, a fine actor usually trapped in drab secondary roles, seizes this leading-man opportunity with irresistible panache; Grays is heartfelt as his aboriginal love; and Bobb makes such an adorable dog that I'd adopt him as a pet myself if I thought Equity and the ASPCA would approve.

Theatermania A
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) The tale we're told by Louis de Rougemont (Michael Countryman) is as colorful as it is fanciful. Better yet, it is told in a unique combination of bold strokes and subtle subtext that weaves a greater meaning into the play, making it ultimately a poignant embrace of our need to imagine...It's at the height of Louis' fame that the play suddenly changes gears. From thereon, Shipwrecked turns from engaging artifice into breathtaking art. Countryman gives a splendid performance that is as deliciously broad as it is tenderly nuanced...In short, Shipwrecked! simply and beautifully sails!

Total Theater A
(Simon Saltzman) A clever and diverting family “entertainment”...this sublimely staged and performed narrative has more to offer than many a spectacle-filled theatrical...The cast of three, under Lisa Peterson’s direction, work hard and effectively to make this show a 90-minute delight...I have to admit that after seeing Louis ride on the back of a giant sea turtle, I was willing to believe anything.

AM New York A-
(Matt Windman) The bulk of “Shipwrecked!” feels like children’s theater. While Rougemont, played by Michael Countryman, describes his supposed exploits to the audience over 90 minutes, Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays play sidekick characters ranging from Rougemont’s dog Bruno (complete with a wide, open tongue) to his young Aborigine wife...However, the play reaches an unexpectedly sobering climax...And it becomes clear that “Shipwrecked!” is far more surprising and complex than we originally suspected. But from the start, it is an invigorating, endlessly creative theatrical experience to be equally enjoyed by young and old.

NY Press A-
(Leonard Jacobs) A complete immersion into the meta-theatrical, and to thoroughly engaging effect. The play by Donald Margulies...isn’t a watershed event; it’s more a comic bouffe than a reach for Wagnerian heights. But it’s a tasty truffle from an inventive dramatist gifted at sniffing around...One could quibble with the occasional preciousness and cuteness of the piece, or one might express concerns over some stylistic inconsistencies that nearly send the play down the road to the Theater of the Ridiculous. But good storytelling is the goal, and the story, as de Rougemont might have said, must be told.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) May bring back the days of the radio play and Irene Wicker the beloved Singing Lady and story teller. The degree to which you'll be astonished depends on your willingness to tap into your eight-year-old self...However, even the most sophisticated theatergoer will be astonished, and charmed, Michael Countryman as de Rougemont— whether as a sickly child, an adventurer, a literary celebrity or a defiant dreamer in the face of failure. Further astonishment, and delight, is provided by Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays...The pair segues from character to character with timing that is mind boggling...For all the excellence of the performances and the impressively imaginative staging, Shipwrecked, calls on us to be star-gazers a bit longer than necessary. I for one would not have minded having de Rougmont ride off on his turtle at least ten minutes sooner.

Hartford Courant B+
(Malcolm Johnson) Countryman brings a kind of absurd heroism to the adventurer. It is a highly engaging performance in a production that rarely sags. This is an unsual [sic] play for Margulies, best known for contemporary works like "Dinner With Friends" and "Sight Unseen." "Shipwrecked" takes him in a new direction, and will most likely prove popular with regional theaters around the country.

New Yorker B+
A delightful take on the nineteenth-century adventure tale...The piece, zany as it is, never crosses into parody; rather, it spins Rougement’s prim narration (“I laughed, with bitter irony!”) into a warm, oddball homage to a genre that Margulies clearly adores.

DC Theatre Scene B+
(Richard Seff) Staged by Lisa Peterson with great imagination and spirit...That Louis turns out to have enough imagination to turn the truth of his rather sordid tale into a grand and great adventure, does not make us think less of him, for he’s brightened our day in a dozen small ways by sharing his hopes and dreams with us. Tiny Ms. Grays is fun as the captain of a ship, as Louis’ mother, as Louis’ wife, and as various natural sounds. But it is Mr. Bobb who absolutely convinced me not only that he was a dog, but managed to give that dog as many characteristics as any well drawn character of the human persuasion.

New York Times B
(Charles Isherwood) [An] amiable but featherweight frolic, which is probably best suited to children who are still susceptible to the magic of bedtime stories, or not yet turned into obsessed adepts at video gaming...As the chapters whiz by, the bewhiskered and bright-eyed Mr. Countryman creates a lively portrait of a man whose friendly gusto helps you overlook the sometimes generic-feeling nature of his wild peregrinations...[Margulies] also prefers to leave shrouded in mystery any thorny questions of his hero’s ethics or motivations, providing only a fig leaf of psychology rather than thoroughly anatomizing Louis’s mania.

American Theatre Web B
(Andy Propst) It would take a person with a pretty stony heart to resist the charm exuded by Michael Countryman in Donald Margulies' theatrical seafaring adventure...Countryman, playing Rougemont, bursts with a sort of vivacity and innocence that's generally found only in children who have not yet reached puberty...Margulies has a surprise or two stowed below deck...The final third of "Shipwrecked" does indeed atone for languors that theatergoers may experience along Louis' journey, and regardless of the slow trade winds that may buffet the play, there's always Countryman's buoyant performance as the young man who endures all that life throws at him.

Backstage B
(Lisa Jo Sagolla) Because it's clear from the get-go that the pretentious central character is a phony, one never becomes heartily invested in his story, so it is only with uninvolved detachment that one appreciates the imaginative efforts to dramatize his life...Margulies' cleverly crafted play underlines the contrived essence of theatrical storytelling, with de Rougemont (Michael Countryman) shifting back and forth between narrating and acting out his made-up escapades. He is ably assisted by two hard-working supporting players (Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb)...While the play toys intelligently with notions of imagination and truth and is bustlingly directed by Lisa Peterson, the overtly engineered proceedings are only ensnaring for about an hour of the 90-minute production.

(Ellen Wernecke) Shipwrecked! An Entertainment begs to sweep the audience away on a fantastic voyage, but its pull is just a little gentle to accomplish that.

New York Post B-
(Frank Scheck) For me, a little bit of this sort of whimsical artifice goes a long way and the 90-minute proceedings, skillfully directed by Lisa Peterson, began to pale long before their conclusion. Countryman is absolutely terrific, delivering a highly physical turn that at one point even includes some impressive acrobatics. Even while delivering the tale in masterfully compelling style, he subtly conveys the poignancy underlying de Rougemont's desperate need for attention.

Time Out NY B-
(David Cote) Energetic (if twee)...For younger spectators, this may prove an amusing spectacle, but adults could chafe at the earnestness of Margulies’s story-theater approach. Still, any entertainment that ends with a guy riding a giant sea turtle on an antique revolving stage can’t be all bad.

Lighting & Sound America C+
(David Barbour) Singular, eccentric, and thoroughly quizzical...[Margulies'] approach avoids the most interesting part of the story, which involves Louis' character and motivations, and, therefore, his downfall lacks any real payoff...Lisa Peterson's production is gracefulness itself, with Louis' narration aided and abetted by two actors and four stagehands who deploy a seemingly infinite number of handmade sound effects with the skill of professional Foley artists. (Anyone with an interest in sound design may want to see Shipwrecked...) Shipwrecked also provides that fine character actor Michael Countryman with a rare leading-role opportunity, and he proves to be an excellent host.

Just Shows To Go You C
(Patrick Lee) The conceit, which has the feeling of childrens’ theatre, is not without purpose - the story-theatre approach speaks to the resourcefulness of human imagination, a unifying theme in the show’s final half hour. Despite this and despite the efforts of the able cast, the play evaporates into thin air - there’s barely any tension in the story until it’s nearly over, and there isn’t enough variety in the presentation to otherwise hold our interest.

Talkin' Broadway D-
(Matthew Murray) The diminutive, dumbed-down theatrical epic must be here to stay...Shipwrecked! is just sloppy...As was the case with The 39 Steps and Around the World in 80 Days, the jagged nature of this production prevents easily assimilation of it if you try to connect with it intellectually or emotionally. Margulies and Peterson can’t, and shouldn’t, be excused so many basic mistakes merely because they were aiming so low. There’s no reason for so incomprehensible a timeline, for so many inconsistencies to impede a potentially fascinating examination of whether de Rougemont was apathetic, deceitful, a raving loon, or - just maybe - marginally truthful...Countryman is a natural-born narrator, but at best blandly compelling.

Bloomberg A+ 14; Variety A 13; AP A 13; VV A 13; TheaterMania A 13; Total Theater A 13; AMNY A- 12; NY Press A- 12; CU B+ 11; HC B+ 11; New Yorker B+ 11; DCTS B+ 11; NYT B 10; ATW B 10; BS 10; EDGENY B 10; NYP B- 9; TONY B- 9; L&SA C+ 8; JSTGY C 7; TB D- 3; 223/21=10.62 (B+)

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