Storytelling is staging a comeback, from various programs on National Public Radio to the wildly successful Ex Fabula in Milwaukee.
Plain old fanciful storytelling is what opened over the weekend at Splinter Group with "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself)" by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
Don’t look for hidden meanings or profound morals or even much of a sense of subterfuge in this production, directed by Jim Farrell and Niffer Clarke. What you will see is three supporting actors filling a wide variety of roles, human and not so human, and an absolute tour de force for T. Stacy Hicks as Louis de Rougemont.
We are greeted upon arrival by Louis, dressed as befitting a gentleman of the 19th century.
"Hello and welcome to this temple of the imagination," Louis says as he commands the center of the stage, talking to each of us. "This hallowed hall where the stories are told."
And we are off and running, starting with Louis as a child in London, pale and sickly, spending most of his time in his blue room with his blue teddy bear and listening to his mother read to him from "Robinson Crusoe" and "Arabian Nights" and other high-adventure stories. Eventually Louis finds the sun outside, and while it bathes him in an unfamiliar warmth, it also lights a path for Louis to live his adventures.
At 16, he says goodbye and leaves his home, only to meet with a salty seafaring captain who signs Louis on as a crew member headed to the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia for a pearl diving mission.
An adventure would not be complete without danger and unexpected twists and turns that place our hero in jeopardy – and that make him a bigger hero than he ever dreamed.
Of course, there is a shipwreck (see the title) and the almost-didn’t-happen landing on a deserted island, saved by his trusty dog, Bruno, who grabs Louis’ shirt in his teeth just as he is about to sink to the bottom of the ocean, worn out from the battle to reach shore.
Louis tells his stories, chapter by chapter. "Chapter Five, Marooned." " Chapter Six, In which my isolation ends." And so forth.
Along the way, Louis sees a giant octopus capture a fisherman and his boat, meets a tribe of Aborigines, sails with them to their home island, falls in love with and marries a beauty of the tribe, has two daughters, fights and defeats an attacking tribe by teaching his own tribe to walk on stilts, is rescued after sailing from the island to Australia, sails back to his homeland, learns gymnastics and memorizes the complete works of Shakespeare.
His adventure of 30 years comes to an ending full of surprise and great good humor.
Hicks delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen him give. He is everything a great teller of tales should be. He’s smart and full of passion and wisdom with a mercurial sense of humor and pace.
There is a magnetism about his work that makes the audience feel like an intimate part of the play. He has dug deep to find the heart of Louis and lays it bare for all to see.
The three supporting actors – Kathiamarice Lopez, David Rothrock and Kristin Johnson – play everything from tribe members to sailors to soldiers to scientists to fish to the plant life that lays at the ocean floor.
It falls to Rothrock for the meatiest and funniest of supporting roles, including the dog Bruno. Watching him pant and lick and roll over to have his belly tickled is like watching a real dog in action. And once the poor dog leaves, Rothrock turns, as if by magic, into a tightly wound Queen Victoria, honoring Louis for his adventurous tales.
"Shipwrecked" is just what it takes to make the magic of live theater happen. It often requires that an audience suspend the capacity to disbelieve and a willingness to let yourself go to places unexpected and wonderful.
A word must be said about Splinter Group, the idea and passion for Farrell and Clarke, who are married.
For the three years of its existence, it has found a comfortable home at the Marian Center for Nonprofits on Lake Drive in Bay View. But the center is closing, and Splinter Group will be in search of a new home.
This company has given us some productions you might not see anywhere else in town, plays like "Kimberly Akimbo," "Dog Sees God" and a spectacular production of "Bug" by Tracy Letts.
I hope, as should we all, that Clarke and Farrell find some rest for a moment or two, but then find a new home and continue to bring some of the most interesting productions you can see on Milwaukee stages.
"Shipwrecked!" runs through March 13 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
Production Credits: Directors, Jim Farrell and Niffer Clarke; Set Design, Jim Farrell; Lighting Design, Ross Zentner; Sound Design, Niffer Clarke and Matt Whitmore; Costume Design, Niffer Clarke and T. Stacy Hicks; Stage Manager, Tessara Morgan.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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